Asked to extrapolate the type of grandparent his late mom, Princess Diana, would have been, Prince William gave a surprising answer.
“She’d be a nightmare grandmother, absolute nightmare,” he quipped in the 2017 ITV and HBO documentary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy. Sure, the former nursery school teacher would have loved Prince George, 4, and Princess Charlotte, 3, “to bits,” said the royal. (At this point Prince Louis was still nine months away from making his appearance.) But she’d be so taken with her little ones that she’d indulge their every whim, he speculated. “She’d come in probably at bath time, cause an amazing…scene, bubbles everywhere, bathwater all over the place, and then leave.”
Her style certainly left a mark on her eldest heir. When Diana gave birth to her future king in 1982, her insistence on hands-on parenting was seen as revolutionary. After all, a newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II left young kids Prince Charles and Princess Anne in the care of his grandparents and household staff to embark on a six-month tour of the Commonwealth shortly after her coronation. And her decisions to let them wear jeans and baseball caps and eat McDonald’s hamburgers, while not express defiance of any sort of rule, were certainly not the done thing.
Now the 36-year-old and his wife Kate Middleton, 36, are following in her trailblazing footsteps. While the pair certainly abide by many royal traditions—today, after all, 11-week-old Louis was baptized at St. James’s Palace wearing a replica of the intricate lace and satin dress made for Queen Victoria‘s eldest daughter in 1841, the same outfit his older siblings donned—they’re keen to give their tiny heirs a life outside the gilded walls of Kensington Palace. “They feel it’s important to make them aware of their backgrounds,” a source told Us Weekly. But it’s also “vital” for their kids—third, fourth and fifth in line for the British throne, respectively—”to have as much normalcy in their lives as possible.”
So far, they feel they’ve struck just the right balance. As William told BBC News in 2016, “As far as we’re concerned, within our family unit, we are a normal family. I love my children the same way any father does.”
Much of this modern way of thinking and lack of hired help has been credited to the so-called “Middletonization” of the royal family, what with William’s bride being a commoner who experienced a relatively modest upbringing. But the seed was planted well before the University of St. Andrews grads ever crossed paths.
It was Diana who declared, “I want to bring them up with security. I hug my children to death and get into bed with them at night. I always feed them love and affection; it’s so important.” And she’s largely thought to be the first woman in the royal family to nurse, ABC News royal correspondent Victoria Arbiter said: “Of course, that’s hard for us to know for certain, but Queen Victoria was adamant that she found breastfeeding disgusting. She thought babies were ugly, and she didn’t really enjoy any part of being pregnant, yet she had nine children.”
Diana, meanwhile couldn’t get enough of her newborn boys. At William’s first press conference she admitted, “I find I can’t stop playing with him.”
So when it came time for an official tour, this one to Australia and New Zealand, she insisted 9-month-old William come along. “And [people] were like, ‘Breaking royal precedent,'” Daisy Goodwin, author of My Last Duchess told ABC News. “But it was brilliant, because…we all really warmed to her. Because no woman wants to leave her baby, and that was what made Diana so lovable—that she always absolutely adored her children.”
William and Kate followed suit, toting 8-month-old George Down Under for their 19-day visit in 2014. And while George and his new sister Charlotte didn’t tag along for a weeklong trip to India in 2016, “Because George is too naughty,” Kate told fans, “he would be running all over the place,” they were on hand for a 2016 trip to Canada and a stopover in Germany and Poland last year.
Both trips produced some utterly relatable photographs of Kate trying to soothe or scold both of her children, each snapshot serving to highlight the fact that despite living in a literal palace, when it comes down to it, the duchess is a regular mom. Rather than rely on a team of household helpers, William and Kate have a team of one: longtime nanny Maria Borrallo. “They’re not having them raised by a coterie of nannies behind palace walls,” Christopher Andersen, the author of the new book Game of Crowns: Elizabeth, Camilla, Kate, and the Throne, told Good Housekeeping. “Charles had no real exposure as a small child to the world outside the royal circle. She does have a nanny, but really Kate is a hands-on mom.”
Having spent their earliest years two-and-a-half hours from the London spotlight in the sleepy Norfolk village of Anmer, Charlotte was able to develop her love of soccer sheltered by cast-iron security gates, 12-foot pines and a no-fly zone that was placed overhead at William’s request. At a 2016 luncheon held in his honor, British Football Association president William reported to the crowd that the then-11-month-old was “a very good footballer. You hold her hand and she kicks it. Very sweet.”
Meanwhile George, lover of anything with wheels, was able to tool around the 20,000-acre grounds of Anmer Hall on bike rides with Dad. And when Charlotte wasn’t tumbling around with George, she’d be trailing after her mom, a family friend telling Us Weekly she had her own set of kitchen gadgets she used when Kate was preparing food in the 18th century home’s renovated kitchen. Her other go-to toy, the friend revealed, anything Disney Princess, though, “I don’t think it’s quite dawned on her that she’s a princess herself.” Similarly George, “quite likes The Lion King,” William has revealed, however, it’s unclear if the presumed future monarch grasps the full weight of the song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”
In an ideal world, that particular cognizance is a ways off. Catherine Mayer, author of Charles: The Heart of a King told E! News that William knows how much his father struggled with the weight of his future as a child. So with George, he and Kate “are trying to delay that moment of realization and give him normality before they thrust this on him.”
While it seems likely a few of his well-heeled classmates at Thomas’s Battersea recognize his status, for now he’s just George Cambridge, whose parents chatted with the other grownups at orientation and turned out to watch him portray the role of sheep in the nativity play.
But all of that may not have been possible if Diana didn’t take a stand back in the ’80s. At her insistence, William, followed by his brother Prince Harry, became the first heir to “begin his schooling outside of a palace,” Newsweek‘s George Hackett wrote in 1985. “The decision to have William, 3, develop his finger-painting skills among commoners showed the influence of Diana, Princess of Wales, who had worked in a nursery school herself when she was just a Lady.”
And William’s first day at Jane Mynor’s nursery school went went swimmingly, the young prince returning home with a finger mouse and his Postman Pat thermos. “He enjoyed himself; there were no tears,” a palace spokesperson proclaimed.
Just the slightest bit of annoyance. Bodyguard Ken Wharfe recalled one anecdote to ABC News, noting Diana informed William there would be people taking pictures and he’d need to behave. “And he, in this sort of just William way, said to his mother, just below the pink cap, ‘I don’t like ‘tographers,'” recounted Wharfe. “She said, ‘Well, you’re going to get this for the rest of your life.”
But to balance out the intrusion, Diana packed in as much fun and normality as possible. Before she came along, royals were mostly kept sequestered from the population they’d one day rule. As a princess, Elizabeth was said to be so trapped in her gilded cage the palace had to invite in a Girl Guide company (known as Girl Scouts in the U.S.) so she had kids her own age to play with.
“I think that really is the long-lasting legacy that Diana has left William and Harry,” royal correspondent Arbiter said. “She took them outside the palace walls.”
With Diana leading the way, they road the bus and the tube and even went to Disney World, where they stood in line with everyone else.
“She made sure that they experienced things like going to the cinema, queuing up to buy a McDonalds, going to amusement parks, those sorts of things that were experiences that they could share with their friends,” Diana’s chief of staff Patrick Jephson told ABC News.
Perhaps more importantly, she introduced them to her charity work, bringing her boys along on visits to hospitals and homeless shelters. “It was a very difficult dilemma for Diana to prepare them for the very distinctive, unique life that they have had to lead,” Jephson said. “And she did it very cleverly, I think.”
That included taking a 7-year-old William to a homeless shelter “completely out of sight of any camera or media,” Wharfe recalled. “This was Diana’s way of actually saying to William, ‘Listen, it isn’t all what you think it is living at Kensington Palace.’ That was a quite a brave thing on Diana’s part.”
It’s a lesson William, now the patron for the Centrepoint homeless charity, took to heart. “She played a huge part in my life and Harry’s growing up, in how we saw things and how we experienced things,” William said in a 2012 interview Katie Couric.
For now, he and Kate are focused on parables that are more easily digestible for those under the age of 5. “My parents taught me about the importance of qualities like kindness, respect and honesty. I realize how central values like these have been to me throughout my life,” Kate said during a kickoff to Children’s Mental Health Week last year. “That is why William and I want to teach our little children, George and Charlotte, just how important these things are as they grow up.”
But greater education lies ahead. As William recalled to Couric, his mom “very much wanted to get us to see the rawness of real life. And I can’t thank her enough for that, ’cause reality bites in a big way, and it was one of the biggest lessons I learned is, just how lucky and privileged so many of us are—particularly myself.”
George, Charlotte and now little Louis will never have bath time with Grandma—their greatest connection to her coming from William’s frequent bedtime stories and the photos that line the halls of their 21-room palace apartment. “It’s important that they know who she was and that she existed,” William explained in Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy.
We’re willing to bet they’ll be feeling the effects of her legacy for years to come.