How to raise a royal baby

Updated 11:49 AM EDT, Tue July 23, 2013

Story highlights

The Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to a boy on Monday

Deborah Cohen: Everyone's got advice for new parents, but the royal family has been mum

She says Kate and Prince William reportedly want a "normal" childhood for their child

Cohen: For extraordinary people to make themselves ordinary is a conjuring act

Editor’s Note: Deborah Cohen is the author of “Family Secrets” and professor of humanities and history at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter: @DeborahACohen

(CNN) —  

At long last, the royal baby has arrived! The queen can finally depart for her summer holiday at Balmoral. The paparazzi who have been littering the streets in front of St. Mary’s Hospital can now train their long lenses on a topless (albeit nursing) mother. To Kate and William, I pass on the most consoling words I received when my daughter was born: The first month of parenthood isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Everyone’s got advice for new parents. The French – we are told – raise happier and better-behaved children, thanks to their self-assured authority and bans on snacking. Tiger moms, so the legend goes, breed successful children because of rigorous discipline and unflinchingly high standards. Gwyneth Paltrow’s children prosper because they are deprived of carbohydrates.

But in a clamorous field of conflicting advice-givers, the members of Britain’s royal family are notable no-shows. While many have an opinion about how the new royal baby should be brought up – nanny or no nanny, Charles and Camilla or the Middletons holding grandparently sway – there is no volley answering back from the Palace. Little wonder, since a Royal Guide to Parenting sounds like a Monty Python skit, with the dotty royal ancestors alternately misplacing their progeny and browbeating them for breaches of arcane infant protocol.

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Deborah Cohen
Deborah Cohen

It’s not that royal parents lack a plan. Kate and Prince William reportedly want a “normal” childhood for their offspring. Prince William’s mother, Diana, said the same thing. For Diana, that meant unscheduled playtimes, the occasional meal at McDonald’s, nursery school with other children.

But if a trip for the royal heirs to Disney World was a novelty, the longing for ordinariness – or seeming ordinariness – is in fact a much older aspiration. It was Prince William’s great-great-great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria and her German consort, Prince Albert, who recognized the adulation that might be inspired by a royal family (the term was Albert’s own coinage) cast in the mold of middle-class virtues.

Unlike her dissipated uncles, Victoria and her family would be paragons of bourgeois domesticity. Albert was present at the birth of his children. The education of Bertie, their second-born son and heir, was approached with the utmost seriousness. Distrustful of the lax and inattentive royal parents of the past, Albert elected to superintend every detail of Bertie’s upbringing himself.

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Still, all of this parental care came, as Jane Ridley’s fascinating new biography of Edward VII reveals, at a high price. Bertie could never live up to his parents’ expectations of him. He was rebellious, a slow learner and – or so his father feared – marked by the congenital weaknesses in Victoria’s line. In the hope of instilling regular habits, Albert spied on his son constantly. Both of his parents issued a constant stream of corrections, Tiger Mothers before the fact. “I had no boyhood,” Bertie later lamented.

From Victoria and Albert onwards, contemporary claims to normality and ordinariness jostle up against retrospective assessments of secrecy and isolation. Was Charles’ father, Prince Philip, really doing a “splendidly modern job on the upbringing of his son,” as the Daily Mirror reported when Charles was 13: “No effete, out-dated Eton, with its tailcoats, fancy waistcoats, slender watch chains and high-pitched accents”? Or was young Prince Charles, as is now often suggested, the hapless victim of distant parents who subjected him to an education unsuited to his personality?

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As Prince Albert presciently recognized, family life does provide common ground, even a point of identification and sympathy, between royals and their subjects. While few live in a castle, the vast majority of us have parents of some sort.

But contrary to Albert’s fond hopes, the royal family has proved itself most normal in the late 20th century not by exemplifying middle-class virtues but by enacting the same fallout from the sexual revolution as most other Western families: adultery, divorce, confession and intergenerational conflict. That sort of normality, however, doesn’t endear you to taxpayers.

For extraordinary people to make themselves ordinary is a conjuring act, one that requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of their audience. It’s role-playing on our part as well as theirs.

So, Kate and William: We wish you many perfectly ordinary sleepless nights, changing diapers and worrying over test scores. But we’ll only know you’re really normal when you tell the rest of us how to raise a baby – and, on the basis of results achieved, some are willing to listen.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Deborah Cohen.