It’s easy to say that everyone knows how important childhood is, and Kate’s speeches occasionally trade in platitudes that feel obvious. But in 5 Big Questions, a 2020 project that surveyed Britons about their attitudes about early childhood, Kate and her team found that only 31% of parents understood that the time from zero to five is the most important for brain development. Even though exposure to language and other stimuli is essential during this period, the US and UK both tend to leave parents without guaranteed childcare and educational support until children qualify for reception or kindergarten programs.
This disconnect seems to be part of what Kate is targeting with her work on child development. “During our very early childhood, our brains develop at an amazing rate—faster than any other time of our lives. Our experiences, relationships, and surroundings at that young age shape the rest of our lives,” she wrote in a January open letter. “But as a society, we currently spend much more of our time and energy on later life. I am absolutely determined that this long-term campaign is going to change that.”
Ipsos UK’s chief executive, Kelly Beaver, who worked with Kate and her team on 5 Big Questions and a follow-up survey project last year, told Vanity Fair that she was surprised by how many people they were able to reach with the Royal Foundation’s assistance. “Going into work with the foundation I didn’t really understand the scale of impact that you could have. I remember them telling me that we will get a huge response to this, and I thought, ‘Well, we’ve done lots of public consultations before. I think you need to manage your expectations,’” she said. “Little did I know. As soon as we put out a date, they immediately built a range of partnerships with organizations to make sure that it reached the general public—partnerships with supermarkets and influencers of all sorts.”
For their first international trip as the Prince and Princess of Wales, Prince William and Kate visited Boston in December to attend the Earthshot Prize ceremony and discuss solutions for climate change, which has emerged as one of the future king’s main issues. Though Kate watched as he delivered his opening speech, she did get one opportunity to be the center of the spotlight during the trip. While William met with President Joe Biden, Kate was across the city at Harvard, where she met with the private university’s president, Lawrence Bacow, his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, and several experts at the school’s prestigious Center on the Developing Child. Research that came from the center helped underpin the Royal Foundation’s first report on early childhood education in the UK, and the center’s ideas about brain development and plasticity seem to have shaped Kate’s personal understanding of the issues, so they had plenty to talk about.
Royal women have long had a philanthropic association with women and children, but before now it was not the type of work that would guarantee an audience with the president of Harvard. In the early 19th century, that meant Queen Adelaide using her royal largesse to fund schools, hospitals, and orphanages, while sending out individual donations to destitute or ill people who wrote her letters. For the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, it meant filling their working days with visits to children’s hospitals or places like Barnardo’s, a charity for vulnerable children where Margaret served as a patron.
On the surface, Kate is still doing traditional Windsor-style engagements, but she is suiting them to her skills—knowing her briefing books, exuding a quiet confidence, making people feel comfortable—and the needs of modern media. For the last century, royal spouses have had to walk a fine line between being their spouse’s supporting act while also building a portfolio large enough to justify their royal role. Kate, the first university graduate to hold the title of Princess of Wales, has spent the last half-decade building up the type of résumé that would allow her to feel at home in a room full of experts.
For Princess Diana, the royal role entailed using her charisma to make someone’s day, while also bringing attention to social issues in the press. Though Diana did occasionally wear a Harvard sweater in the streets of London, she didn’t often visit with university professors or research scientists in academic settings as a focus of her work. That said, Kate is following the playbook that Diana established for making sure her work had an impact. Princess Diana began her time as a royal pursuing more traditional patronage roles for organizations connected to Wales, children, and music. According to Tina Brown, teenage trips to volunteer at a local mental hospital were formative for her, and eventually she gravitated toward hospital visits and fundraising once she became a mother herself.