Princess Diana was celebrated for her easy rapport with children but her biggest legacies, says Anna Pursglove, are the way she shook up royal parenting and championed the vulnerable
It is often said that Princess Diana ‘loved children’ but, really, so what? Royals are trained to comment politely on the beauty of babies, ignore tantruming toddlers and generally bestow benevolence on the innocent.
The point about Diana is that she did things for children – her own and other people’s.
As a former nanny and kindergarten teacher, Diana was always relaxed around kids. Godmother to 17 (ten girls and seven boys), she often seemed to prefer the company of the young to that of the grown-ups.
However, hers was not a soppy, hearts and bunnies, passive sort of affection but rather something active – at times aggressive.
‘I will fight for my children on any level,’ she once said. ‘So they can reach their potential.’ She was talking about her sons William and Harry but could equally have been talking about the thousands of children whose lives she changed.
In fact, of all her legacies, Diana’s role in modernising royal parenting and also fighting for disenfranchised children across the world must surely be her most enduring.
She made active childbirth a royal first
On 21 June 1982, Princess Diana broke with tradition to give birth to Prince William at the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in West London.
For more than 100 years before that, royal mothers had given birth inside the confines of the royal palaces in a drug-induced ‘twilight’ sleep brought on by a combination of morphine and scopolamine. Forceps were used to deliver their babies.
Princess Diana, however, wanted an active birth, during which she asked to remain fully conscious.
Natural childbirth activist Sheila Kitzinger was consulted by the Lindo Wing prior to William’s birth on what equipment it should provide to allow Diana to give birth in an upright position.
‘I said that Charles looked strong enough to hold her,’ recalled Kitzinger, ‘and that is what happened. It was the first active royal birth – a complete contrast to the Queen’s reflection that, with modern anaesthesia, birth had become “a sleep and a forgetting”.’
She took her babies on official duties
In 1983, the 22-year-old Diana was due to accompany Charles on a royal tour of Australia and New Zealand, the princess’s first overseas engagement.
Although protocol dictated that a member of the Royal Family should not fly with their direct successor (meaning Charles and William should not have been on the same plane), Diana is said to have refused to leave her nine-month-old son behind.
Far from being the stereotypical nightmare kid on a long-haul flight, Prince William is reported to have behaved beautifully. The couple’s press secretary Victor Chapman told the press: ‘I heard Prince William cry only twice in 30 hours.’
This relaxed approach to parenting from Diana on the tour played extremely well with Australians and New Zealanders. So much so that some insiders claimed Charles was jealous of the positive attention she received on the trip.
She held an HIV baby and changed the world
Diana could easily have limited her sphere of operation to ‘safe’ causes but, instead, she chose to champion controversial concerns such as Aids.
To state that babies born with HIV need love and human contact may seem obvious today, but back in 1991, when Diana was photographed holding a baby with HIV in Sao Paulo, Brazil, many people believed that you could catch the virus by touching an infected person.
As Deborah Gold, chief executive of the National Aids Trust, has commented: ‘If she had [limited herself to less controversial causes] it is hard to imagine when the public would have learnt that it was OK to touch somebody living with HIV. There can be no doubt that Diana was responsible for one of the biggest shifts in public awareness of HIV and Aids that has ever taken place.’
She chose the way her sons were educated
Just as when she gave birth, Diana jumped at any opportunity to conduct life outside the palace walls.
She made sure, therefore, that her sons experienced as ‘ordinary’ a childhood as possible. To this end, rather than being tutored at the palace, William became the first future monarch to be entirely educated in the school system, starting at Mrs Mynors nursery in Notting Hill, West London, in September 1985, before going to nearby Wetherby Preparatory School two years later. Next, he attended Ludgrove independent boarding school in Wokingham, Berkshire, before passing the Eton entrance exam.
Diana would do the school run herself and join in with their school activities including – famously – allowing herself to be photographed taking place in mums’ races at sports day.
She made being silly around children her forte
Whether it was letting her sons and their friends bury her in sand, hurtling down a water ride at Thorpe Park or helping them learn to ski, Diana wanted her sons to remember having fun with her and not just a parade of nannies.
‘She understood that there was a real life outside of palace walls,’ William said in a documentary about her life. Diana tried to make her downtime with the children as normal as it can be when you are being followed by armies of photographers. During a 1991 ski trip with the boys to Lech, Austria, she insisted on there being no bodyguards in attendance so that the family could relax properly.
She could talk to them on their level, too
If you look back at photographs of Princess Diana, you will notice that she is rarely seen wearing a hat during public engagements. This, according to Claudia Acott Williams, a Kensington Palace curator, is because Diana was of the opinion that ‘you can’t cuddle a child in a hat’. Acott Williams further observed that Diana would often select costume jewellery that would catch a child’s eye and which they could play with.
Diana – with her childcare training – also understood that rather than loom over a child, you need to crouch down to their level in order to speak to them. She was frequently pictured squatting in playgrounds, skirt tucked strategically under her calves, absolutely absorbed by what a child was telling her.
She showed affection – it became a trademark
When it comes to demonstrating Diana’s disregard for the royal protocol on demonstrative behaviour, there is one picture that says more than any other. The photograph of her throwing her arms open to greet the young princes William and Harry as they joined their parents on board Royal Yacht Britannia in Canada almost screams ‘I’ve missed you!’
Prince Harry has said: ‘She would engulf you and squeeze you as tight as possible and being as short as I was then, there was no escape, you were there for as long as she wanted to hold you. Even talking about it now, I can feel the hugs she used to give us.’
When Martin Bashir asked Diana why she thought she would never be queen, she replied: ‘Because I do things differently, because I don’t go by a rule book, because I lead from the heart, not the head… someone’s got to go out there and love people and show it.’