July 27, 2009 12:00 PM

There’s been a family credo in the dark days following the funeral of Michael Jackson: Keep the kids busy. Inside the clan’s Encino, Calif., compound, aunts and uncles have been working hard to entertain more than 20 cousins with swimming, basketball, video games and water balloon fights. It might be mistaken for a family’s summer reunion if it weren’t for the three heartbroken children at the center of this tragedy. “They’re crying a lot,” a Jackson insider says of Michael’s children, Prince Michael I, 12, Paris, 11, and Prince Michael II, nicknamed Blanket, who, at age 7, “doesn’t fully understand what happened.”

But with Jackson now temporarily laid to rest (his body was being held at Forest Lawn), the issue of who should care for the singer’s children must now be discussed. At press time Prince and Paris’s mother, Debbie Rowe, plans to attend a July 20 guardianship hearing, according to her close pal Marc Schaffel, but has yet to file a custody claim. (A report that Rowe had struck a multimillion-dollar deal with the Jacksons to not pursue custody is false, her attorney tells PEOPLE. But a source says talks between the camps are in progress.) If Rowe does not file a petition, Katherine Jackson, 79, the kids’ grandmother and temporary guardian, could be appointed permanently by the court.

No matter who ends up caring for the kids, the priority will be the same: helping the trio mourn the loss of their father. The public got a glimpse of their pain when Paris tearfully proclaimed that he was “the best father you could ever imagine” at Jackson’s July 7 memorial service. Earlier that morning their grief was just as raw. At a family-only service at the Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks & Mortuaries, Jackson’s little girl requested his song “Gone Too Soon” be played during the service, at which she and her brothers wept, held hands and comforted each other. According to family sources, the children are literally clinging to memories of their dad, from the Michael Jackson doll Blanket clutched at the public memorial to the white socks and black loafers on his feet. “Paris had a T-shirt on the other day that said King of Pop,” says Leonard Rowe (no relation to Debbie), Jackson’s financial supervisor, who has spent time with the kids since their father’s death. “They had a great relationship with Michael. They loved him and he loved them dearly.”

Having once declared, “I am the product of a lack of a childhood,” Jackson did everything in his power to create a carefree world for his kids. Every family event, even the most mundane, was infused with spectacle. The family wouldn’t just plop on a couch to watch a DVD: They saw Transformers on a bus Jackson had tricked out with a state-of-the-art sound system and a huge LCD screen. He’d bring home toys and tell his staff, “When [the kids] wake up in the morning, it’ll be like Christmas.” (The Jacksons seemed to celebrate the holiday year-round: In June ornaments adorned the walls and holiday tunes filled the house.)

Of course, the troubling aspects of Jackson’s life also meant his children lived in virtual isolation. After their father’s 2005 trial for child molestation ended with a not guilty verdict, the family abandoned Neverland, the only home the kids had ever known, for a nomadic life in places like Ireland and Bahrain. They were home-schooled in classrooms he set up in his mansions (“Michael was a real disciplinarian about that—the kids were in school at least five to seven hours a day,” says pal Bryan Michael Stoller, who had been asked to teach them how to make films) and often wore masks or sheer scarves over their heads when they went out. Insiders say the kids were not as sheltered as you might think. “That [was] only for protection and security when they were with him,” says Jackson’s friend Kathy Hilton, who would sometimes take them—uncovered—to the movies or out to eat. But shielding themselves from photographers was second nature to Prince, Paris and Blanket. For Blanket’s 7th birthday at Jackson’s Holmby Hills home in February, Michael hired magician Rob Zabrecky. (A juggler and a hula-hoop artist also performed; there were no other party guests.) Zabrecky was only a few minutes into his act when a paparazzi helicopter buzzed loudly overhead. “In a split second, they each pulled out cloths and placed them over their heads.” Once the chopper flew off, so did the coverings. “They sat there smiling and waiting for me to continue,” he says. “They looked like four peas in a pod. It wasn’t exactly Norman Rockwell, but it sure felt close.”

As much as the singer’s childish side came out at home, he also negotiated sibling spats and set strict rules (he restricted Web sites, had the kids read for an hour a day and kept TV watching to a minimum), and Jackson pal Al Malnik says when the clan stayed with him in Florida, the singer “asked to keep my housekeeping staff out of his children’s bedrooms. He wanted them to keep their own rooms clean.”

If Jackson was grappling with an ever-worsening addiction while parenting Prince, Paris and Blanket, friends contend that his kids were always protected. “Michael spent a lot of time with them, but they were also under a nanny’s care 24/7,” says Leonard Rowe, “so Michael’s drug usage never really affected them directly.” Says Stoller: “I didn’t see anything interfere with his duty as a father.”

Right now it’s up to Jackson’s mother to play the role of parent to his children. “She’s really putting forth the effort to be with them all day, to talk with them, nurture them and comfort them,” says Rowe. But the kids will have to learn to adjust to a new reality. “Those kids grew up in a magic world,” says Stoller. “That world has now died with their father.”

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