Kate Middleton may be raising heirs to the British throne, but first and foremost, they’re her three kids.
Before Kate married Prince William and became future Queen, she had the comfort of a happy childhood — and she wants the same for her own children, Prince George, 6, Princess Charlotte, 4, and Prince Louis, 1.
“She wants to emulate her upbringing, living in the countryside with a close-knit family,” a friend of the royal tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “She desperately wants that normality for her own kids.”
Earlier this summer, Kate brought her children to test out the “Back to Nature” garden she helped design for the famous Chelsea Flower Show in London. George and Charlotte had a blast dipping their feet in a stream and exploring a treehouse, while Louis tried out the rope swing (with some help from Dad!) and collecting rocks.
The project reflected the Duchess of Cambridge’s own passions, as “a lot of her childhood was spent outdoors hiking and camping,” says her friend.
And when the family enjoyed a date outdoors while Prince William and Prince Harry played in a charity polo game over the summer, their royal status was impossible to recognize. George and Charlotte kicked around a soccer ball with Kate cheering them on (when she wasn’t running after Louis, that is!).
When stomachs started rumbling, they retreated to the car for a snack break. Kate and her kids munched on food packed in lunchboxes with the trunk popped open and the royal mom taking a seat on the grass.
An onlooker told PEOPLE at the time, “George seemed to be saying, ‘Charlotte pass me the sandwiches.’ Kate was asking Charlotte to pass little pots of food, and she also helped herself to food.” The scene showed “real life,” said the onlooker.
“It’s the perfect little family unit and she’s an amazing mum, so hands-on and involved with everything,” says another friend.
While focused on motherhood — with her friend says the “three kids really complete her” — Kate is also keenly aware of the role she has.
“Kate has completely grown into it,” says a family friend. “She has got things right—she really, really has.”
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“She is an adoring mother, and she is contributing publicly in the way we would want her to,” adds a source close to the royal household. “You see it more and more. The young student has turned into our future Queen.”