Forget the photo ops, I've seen how much children's development really means to the Princess of Wales

Princess of Wales - Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage
Princess of Wales - Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage

There is a certain look in a mother’s eyes when their toddler is presented to the Princess of Wales. Pride and curiosity, sure, with an eye to capturing the big moment on a camera phone. But mostly, inescapably, nerves about what on earth their little angel might do.

Before she arrives at an engagement, small shining faces are wiped and pep talks given. Invariably something will go wrong, pre-schoolers not often being minded to wait patiently for visiting guests when there is playing to be done and thoughts to be shouted.

They needn’t worry. The Princess, like all members of the Royal family, takes anything a small child can (occasionally literally) throw at her in her stride and wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a mother of three herself, she knows all too well the pressure of keeping even the best-behaved little ones in line.

But more than that, she is genuinely fascinated by them.

“All behaviour is communication,” she has been known to reassure the parents of so-called “naughty” toddlers. “Throwing things is all about learning.”

I have been following her early years work with interest for some time. With the privileged access of a royal editor to watch her public engagements, I have seen first-hand the parts that make the next day’s newspaper reports and bulletins - and the bits that don’t.

So you can take my word for it when I say: the Princess of Wales knows what she is talking about.

As an avid reader of the latest research, convener of meetings and - increasingly - a respected expert in her own right, her passion for the subject is unmistakable in overrunning engagements and conversations so geekily enthusiastic you suspect the Princess would be happy to stay there all day.

Her chats with families are peppered with casual references to parenting theory old and new, taking in the child-led ethos of Montessori, the Scandinavian “get outside in all weathers” mantra, and the gentle parenting habit of helping children to understand their own feelings.

She is careful to avoid anything contentious or alienating. To my knowledge, she has never publicly confirmed how she fed her babies, presumably mindful of the occasionally vicious breast vs bottle debate and the feelings it can inspire in already guilt-ridden mothers.

Prince Louis - Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Prince Louis - Chris Jackson/Getty Images

She can bond with brand new parents over the exhaustion of the newborn days, and hold her own with research professors, childcare CEOs and government ministers.

And the truth? The work hasn’t always been taken as seriously as it deserves.

For every 100 earnest, on-topic remarks about early years development, it is the one aside about her own royal children that will make the headlines.

A picture of her cuddling a baby or playing with a cute toddler is irresistible to the watching public.

Last month, during a visit to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, she spent so long quizzing staff and patients for their insights that I needed a second pen. She covered pre- and post-natal mental health, midwifery during the pandemic, and pondered the importance of attachment in the gold-standard special care unit.

Then she cuddled a tiny baby, and people paid attention.

In February, in a cosy brightly-coloured room at a children’s museum in Copenhagen, she lost track of time hearing an in-depth assessment of Denmark’s outstanding health visiting model, noting down the lessons to bring back to Britain.

Princess of Wales - Alistair Grant/PA
Princess of Wales - Alistair Grant/PA

Later, she made a passing joke about feeling “broody” and gamely went down a helter-skelter slide at the Lego Foundation play lab and that was that: the front pages sorted.

It was fun, the public loved to read about it, and it did the job of raising awareness to a certain extent. But it is time now to hear more about the serious side of the topic to which the Princess has dedicated her working life.

Identifying how to bring about generational change is no small matter. It has taken hard work and courage to take on a topic so vast and so important.

It is the opportunity of a lifetime and one that could leave a legacy arguably greater than any royal cause that has gone before.

I have no doubt she will stick to it. If anyone can speak up for our youngest children and their futures, it is the new Princess of Wales. She, and the next generation she is fighting for, just need people to listen.