The rise of the plastic home

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By Joanna Roughton.

I recently recorded a video diary for a TV news item.

It involved a week in which my family and I would try and cut back on the use of plastic in our home.

The TV producers wanted to underline to viewers just how much single-use plastic we throw away.

Because, when things like plastic bottles, containers and wrapping end up in the bin, they often find their way into our seas.

Once in the ocean, the plastic enters the food chain. On current trends, by 2050, the amount of plastic in the sea will weigh more than all the fish.

So a problem then.

How did we get on?

Well, the first thing to say is that when you try to abstain from using something, you recognise the scale of the problem.

It’s a little like giving up wine for Lent. You might not succeed, but at least you acknowledge how much you’ve been getting through.

Perniciously, the amount of single-use plastic we use grows year on year.

When I was a child, the milkman delivered our milk in bottles. Now it comes in plastic. Years ago, when you bought a soft drink you paid a deposit on the glass bottle it came in. Now it comes in throwaway plastic. Plastic straws have supplanted paper straws. Plastic cups have taken the place of paper cups. On and on it goes.

But it’s only when you make a conscious effort to notice that you realise how much plastic has rendered itself seemingly indispensable to our everyday activities.

There is an alternative, of course. It is possible to ignore the supermarket and use a market. You can buy fruit and vegetables from a stall. They are wrapped in paper bags, or you can tip them straight into a ‘bag-for-life’.

And, because most plastic-wrapped food is processed, by cooking more food from scratch, the plastic burden falls.

Much of the plastic in our kitchens is there for our convenience. It speeds things us up. Reducing our dependence on it is time consuming.

When women like my mother ran a home, they had time to return bottles for a deposit or to chat amiably to stall-holders in the town centre market. Now we all work, the scope for such time-consuming, environment-protecting activities has withered.

The ‘right to disconnect’

By Joanna Roughton.

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A friend of mine has a big job with the NHS.

It involves working in a major teaching hospital and administering a budget running to hundreds of millions of pounds.

She works long days which can often involve back-to-back meetings.

At any time during her working day she may be called upon to make life and death decisions.

At the very least she often has to contend with delicate personnel management issues.

There is little ‘down’ time.

Last week I took my friend for supper. She looked shattered, as well she might. Her home life is loving and supportive. But with young children and a working spouse, home is no holiday camp.

But what really surprised me was the extent to which work intrudes into her home life, especially via emails. As she pointed out, the NHS is a 24-hour operation. However, even she was astonished by the number of emails sent to her overnight recently. On this ‘day’ her inbox received 18 emails between midnight and 6am.

I thought of her when reading reports of a study published in the past few days which showed that office workers are more stressed at home than at work.

The research, published in the latest edition of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, analysed 550 London staff from the French bank BNP Paribas.

The subjects wore wrist monitors to measure heart rates. They suffered ‘spikes’ in their stress levels when they allowed their time at home to be interrupted by work.

Co-author of the study, David Plans, said the culture of always working was “killing people”.

He said: “Dealing with work while at home is pernicious to health and is directly linkable to cardiovascular disease. That is now measurable and before it was not.”

The French, as you may know, have introduced a law to stop this happening. The ‘right to disconnect’ came into effect on New Year’s Day.

It obliges companies with more than 50 workers to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.

The French economy is far from perfect. The country’s 35-hour working week has been widely pilloried and unemployment is forcing a growing number of Frenchmen and women to find jobs in the UK, where the hours are longer, but vacancies exist.

But when it comes to the ‘right to disconnect’ the French have surely hit upon an important intervention.

Technology has a pernicious ability to chip away at our personal space, to penetrate the peace of our homes, without ever really seeking our permission.

In a sense it was easier in the days when someone taking work home apologised to the children before salting themselves away in the study for an hour.

Now the smarthphone means that mummy or daddy may appear to be ‘present’, but as they glance at their device, their mind is actually elsewhere.

Best Friends Forever?

By Joanna Roughton.

So it’s been said. Officially. People have just as much of a duty to look after their elderly parents as they do to care for their own children.

The words came from a Government minister in the House of Commons. David Mowat, a health minister, was addressing the select committee on communities and local government. But he was really speaking to the the great elephant in the room of state expenditure. Social care.

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Hitherto, the conventional wisdom in policy-making circles has been to demand greater resources for social care. With a rapidly ageing population, this has led to fears that the taxpayer could face an unlimited bill for looking after our old folk in care homes.

Occasionally, a new element is introduced into this discussion, often by MPs or commentators whose roots lie outside of the UK. People born in the Indian sub-continent or Africa struggle to comprehend the unwillingness of their Western neighbours to share a home with their elderly parents. After a while they stop noticing and cease drawing unfavourable parallels.

Which makes Mr Mowat’s intervention all the more remarkable. Here’s an excerpt of what he told the select committee. “One of the things that has struck me is no one ever questions that we look after our children – that is obvious. No one says that is a caring responsibility, it is what we do,” he said.

“I think some of that logic and some of the way we think about that in terms the volume of numbers that we are seeing coming down the track will have to impinge on the way that we think about caring for our parents. Because it is a responsibility in terms of our life cycle which is similar.”

In a sense what Mr Mowat is arguing for, a seemingly revolutionary shift in social attitudes, may not be quite as far fetched as it might appear.

We are already witnessing a quiet evolution in household composition. Parents and children no longer obey the old rules. Those rules involved a child leaving home in their late teens or early 20s and forging their way in the world. The symbol of that new found independence was a roof over their heads. Now, of course, things are different. Young people struggle to get a foot on the housing ladder and even those who leave home to attend university often ‘boomerang’ back to the family nest.

So the clear delineation between childhood and adulthood has blurred. Many parents, particularly parents of small families, now freight their parenthood with expectations that previous generations would have been shocked by. It is now normal for a mother to expect a daughter to become her BFF – her Best Friend Forever.

We do not know where this process will end. Long term co-habitation with ageing parents may become the norm for a cohort of younger people who can never afford their own property.

The question we do not yet have an answer for is this?

Will a generation of children who never fly the parental home, feel an enhanced sense of filial obligation?

It is reasonable to assume that having saved on the expense of a mortgage, and the inconvenience of running a home themselves, they will owe mum and dad a debt?

It is also reasonable to assume that having lived with their parents for longer, they will have deeper bonds of association?

A Best Friend Forever must, surely, feel more inclined to care for an increasingly frail parent than a child who left home at 18. This is why Mr Mowat may be onto something.

Leaving flat-mates behind

By Joanna Roughton.

This blog has a bias.

Because I’m a parent with a large family, certain households are beyond my immediate ken. This is an editorial failing. Not least because my tribe – the one consisting of a home-making mum and kids – is in decline (in this country at least).

I have memories of other styles of living. But the decade in which – for instance – I rented a flat with other sharers, is now long gone.

How have things changed?

Many more people now live in multiple-occupancy homes than once they did. Increasingly, they do so into advanced middle age. A flat-share is no longer a part of growing up, a staging post on the way to settling down. It has become a destination unto itself.

There are people in their twenties now, sharing a home with other renters with whom they have no family ties, who may cleave to this lifestyle for their lifetime. Half a century of itinerancy.

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I can think of nothing worse than living in a constantly changing domestic environment, year after year, where a household is in perpetual flux.

Residents move in and move out. Some fall in love and do the settling down thing, others get a job that takes them away, while more still decide they don’t much like their current housemates and opt for something which – at first blush – seems more to their liking.

But for that last group, how to know who will be most simpatico?

A potential solution comes in the form of a new online service launched this week which uses an algorithm to pair prospective co-tenants. It uses a 20-question survey to establish how compatible people are.

One of the questions asks “Should there be a rota for allocating household chores?”.

Another wants to know whether “It is sometimes OK to break the rules.” The multiple choice survey gives answers which range from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’.

Flatmates are then matched according to how well they’re likely to get on with each other.

Simple? Well, yes, up to a point Lord Copper. The problem with these internet surveys is that they’re easily gamed. If you find a flat in the right place and price range, you are unlikely to incriminate yourself by answering a question about how tidy you are honestly.

When you think about, throughout human history, the pairing of people in homes has tended to be done by others. For millennia (and in many parts of the world still), household composition was done via an outside agency. Not an algorithm, but parents. Often a father; through the mechanism of an arranged marriage.

I am glad to have been born into an age and culture where such practises seem outdated. That said, I also think that sharing a house as a student helped me develop a better understanding of how a home should and shouldn’t be run. How simple acts of thoughtlessness or thoughtfulness can make or mar a shared space.

But, in my view, sharing should be rite of passage, taking us en route to a place of permanency, of ties that bind, of commitments to a spouse and children. Old fashioned I know, but there it is.

The monetising myth of the domestic goddess

By Joanna Roughton.

At least one British newspaper last week had the story of ‘America’s most organised couple’. The pair are Ed and Alejandro Costello and their cleverly-packaged life-story is an interesting illustration of some big trends affecting the media, the family and home.

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The life story is important. If you go onto the internet and search for Alejandro Costello you will see articles and videos set inside her home with tips on how to systemise and regiment a household.

None of it is rocket science.

There is advice on de-cluttering which you’ve probably heard before or put down to common sense. There are videos – Alejandro has her own Youtube channel – in which the host shows how to ‘upcycle’ everyday domestic objects. Boxes and labels, jars and labels, clothes folded a particular way in – you guessed it – labelled drawers.

The mainstream media seemed to have lapped this up and bought into it big time.

Why wouldn’t they? Here’s a telegenic couple – she’s cradling an oh-so-pretty-pooch – standing in a house that puts yours to shame.

And, wait for it, here are pictures – supplied by Alejandro – of her as a little girl. It turns out she’s always wanted things to be ‘just so’ with a ‘place for everything, and everything in its place’.

This childhood backstory is important. It de-fangs the obvious doubts we might harbour about Alejandro.

Namely, that she is a slightly odd, obsessive/compulsive type. Or, failing that, she is no more interested in tidiness than you or I, but she has realised that there’s a gap in the soaring Youtube video market for an attractive young woman who can style herself as the go-to personality for guidance on home-making.

Well, I have no idea what really motivates Alejandro to invite millions of Youtube searchers into her home.

If it’s money then, so what. We’ve all got to make a living, right?

And, if she is one of those people who has to keep re-arranging the tins of beans until they all sit at the same angle like Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘As Good As It Gets’, then hey, she’s managed to overcome and, indeed monetise, an affliction.

No, the dissonance comes from a different direction. It is the abject willingness of media outlets to post headlines like ‘most organised home in America’ over pictures of a thirty-something couple and a dog.

I mean, how hard can it be to keep a childless home tidy?

I remember what it was like in those pre-lapsarian days of domestic innocence. Before the tidal wave of child-rearing crashed on the shore of an orderly home and re-arranged it somewhere well up the beach like so much matchwood.

I remember, maybe you do too, how childless contemporaries would visit and stifle comparisons of how my home looked pre- and post- kids.

In short, it is vaultingly simple to keep a home organised, to retain the purity of cream carpets, to produce bathrooms floors fit to eat from, if there are no domestic goblins going about their mischief.

Can pensioners live in student halls?

By Joanna Roughton.

Imagine a retirement home, which also doubles-up as student accommodation. It’s one of the ideas given an outing by a think-tank which, like the Home Renaissance Foundation, cheers on the virtues of inter-generational living.

The think-tank is called United for All Ages and its report warns – a little histrionically – that something must be done to stop a type of ‘apartheid’ opening up between old and young.

In a report published this week, the organisation squarely fingers the housing shortage as the biggest reason for this growing gulf between ages. It argues that the elderly are increasingly ‘zoned’; living in a type of property or area where mixing with people of other generations becomes difficult.

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To prove this point the think-tank has commissioned a survey which purports to demonstrate that the average Briton has 56 per cent fewer interactions with people they would mix with if people of all ages were allowed to mix randomly, without self-segregating. That figure does not include family contact, but even so it does sound worryingly high.

On one level we ought to acknowledge that such a shocking statistic is, at least partly, a product of the natural impulse to share time with people whom we understand. As someone now in her 50s, I increasingly find the cultural touchstones of younger generations abstruse. It helps that I’m a mother – and in time, God willing, a grandmother – because our children help us understand the language, humour, hopes and fears of those coming along after us.

But a growing number of men and women are childless, and do not have that umbilical connection with the values of a younger cohort of humanity. And there are many people who simply find it less hard work to get on with contemporaries, rather than folk who require almost every conversational exchange to come with an explanatory footnote.

But the United for All Ages report identifies the evolution of something less organic. It says the young, in increasing numbers, live in cheaper, urban areas. The older generation – typically their parents and/or grandparents – are living in the suburbs or countryside.

The reason for this is well documented. The effect is what should worry us. The extent to which young and old fail to mix. When that happens society is the poorer. The old do not impart to the young the widsom of their experience, the young do not energise jaded oldsters with the vigour of their youth and idealism.

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But what to do. The Home Renaissance Foundation has published research looking at how architecture can create homes where old and young, parents and children, co-habit whilst retaining shared and independent living spaces. Houses built around a communal courtyard are but one – excellent – example. Others include town houses where the ground floor is for older residents, while the upper storeys are for the next generation. Walls can be taken down easily, as family composition evolves.

United for All Ages takes those ideas on a couple of steps. They are not necessarily likely to happen, but they represent the kind of imaginative proposals which will get people musing on the seriousness of the problem.

So we end up with a plan to create university halls of residence which can be shared by students and pensioners (who may just occasionally be both). Some people will raise their hands in horror at the thought of highly-strung and noisy undergraduates sharing a living space with grannies. The former would be getting up as the latter would be going to bed etc.

But this is to miss the point. We are, increasingly, living in a world where the old and young cannot imagine sharing a space. And that has to be wrong.

Other proposals from this welcome think-tank include using care homes to provide nursery facilities. Studies show the beneficial effects of elderly residents coming into regular contact with children, and care homes – suitably modified – could offer the parking and dining facilities which both eldercare and childcare businesses require.

And another idea floats the notion of home-share schemes in which younger people live with older folk – offering limited care services, in return for reduced rent. It is facile to pick at the hem of these ideas. Obviously, they are fraught with problems about their practical applications. But the alternative, where our generations continue to move apart, also carries risk.

Taking lessons from the Queen

By Joanna Roughton.

Imagine you are a 90-year-old woman whose best friend has just died.

How distressing would that be?

Now, add to that loss, the death in the same month of another close friend – the last of your surviving bridesmaids – and one begins to wonder about the psychological impact on any nonagenarian.

What if this 90-something turns out to be the Queen, the world’s most famous elderly lady, who has just seen old age take away two of her oldest confidantes in the run-up to Christmas.

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The sovereign has reached that age where many of her contemporaries are no longer around.

Wonderfully, her husband and consort through so many decades, the Duke of Edinburgh, remains at her side – five years her senior.  And, obviously, Her Majesty enjoys the best medical intervention money can buy.

Perhaps more importantly she has a large and supportive family. Every Christmas those family members gather in Sandringham, the monarch’s Norfolk country estate, where her late father, George VI, passed away in 1952.

And, every Christmas, the Queen makes the short walk to the local church, cheered on by locals and snapped by photographers.

But not this Christmas. This year the Queen was reported, along with Prince Philip, to be suffering from a ‘heavy cold’.

We are told the Queen is sustained by a strong personal Christian faith. She is also Supreme Governor of the Anglican Communion, which has in excess of 70 million adherents worldwide. So missing the Christmas Day service, we can assume, will have been a disappointment.

I mention all this by way of posing a question. In a country, like Britain, where the idea of an ideal family is in retreat, what kind of a role model can the royal family – with the queen at is head – provide?

There will be many for whom this question is nonsensical. How can a family which sits at the apex of Britain’s still potent class structure, offer a template to be followed by every type of family; high or mighty, humble or downtrodden, blended or dysfunctional?

Well, the royal family may be a model family, but they are far from being problem-free. Three of the Queen’s four children are divorcees.  But that is not to say the monarchy cannot offer the Queen’s subjects an exemplar or two in how we lead our lives.

The Queen, in particular, is an object lesson in self-less duty. And, witnessing my daughters sitting down – of their own volition – to watch HM’s speech on Christmas Day, I was reminded of another reason to thank the sovereign for being who she is.

Quite simply, I can’t imagine any other public figure – of her age – who has the power to seize the interest of teenage girls in the way our head of state did. We live in a culture where the elderly are increasingly invisible, where inter-generational respect is on the wane in some quarters. Our monarch offers an antidote to some of that corrosive lack of mutual understanding.

I also took note of the Queen’s absence at Sandringham for another reason. It was there, almost 20 years ago – on Christmas Day – that my husband proposed marriage to me. He was there as a TV royal correspondent, I there as his guest and a curious observer. He and I, like the Queen and her consort, are, mercifully, still going strong. Merry Christmas everyone.

The strange death of Christmas Day

By Joanna Roughton.

What will you be doing on Christmas Day?

Will you be at the heart of your family, sitting around a dining table, enjoying food with loved ones?

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Thousands of people will be. But they won’t be doing so at home. For there is a growing trend in the UK towards ‘eating out’ on December 25th.

The Trades’ Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s over-arching union body, says the number of employees effectively forced to work on Christmas Day is rising by about five per cent every three years.

It’s an inexorable and, seemingly, accelerating process. The more people who work on Christmas Day, the more socially acceptable it becomes. At the last count 900,000 Britons found themselves in this position.

Historically, of course, there have always been certain jobs which required a presence 365 days a year. Some people – priests for instance – could expect Christmas Day to be busier than usual.

But what seems to be pushing that 900,000 number towards the million mark is the fashion for letting somebody else cook your Christmas dinner.

This seems a shame on several levels. It seems to me that if ever there was one day which should be a celebration of hearth and home, then it is Christmas Day. The family gather together, perhaps from different parts of the country, and they share a meal that has been prepared and then served at home.

Such is the model followed globally. In the UK there is a national twist or two. The dinner is often cooked or completed to coincide with the Queen’s speech on TV at 3pm.

And by being at home, the roads are empty, at least for a few hours in the morning. For one day, and one day only, Britain falls – if not silent – then quieter.

It feels like a vital punctuation mark in the annual calendar, a day of difference, a day of comparative serenity; a festival celebrating, not only Christ’s birth, but the importance of home, fellowship, kith and kin.

I remarked on this to a friend recently who pointed out that not everyone can, or wants to, congregate at home around the dining table on Christmas Day. My friend cited the example of someone they knew whose mother had died within the last year. By eating Christmas dinner at a pub restaurant, they felt they were drawing a line under their bereavement and avoiding memories of Christmases past.

Well, maybe there are some circumstances in which an argument can be mounted for eating-out on December 25th. But I will take some convincing. How easy can it be to tuck into a restaurant turkey, knowing that by being there we may be denying kitchen staff the chance to be at home with their family?

It seems to me that, as with Sunday trading to some extent, we have allowed this ironing-out of the undulations of our calendar without our permission.

Ask people whether they would like Christmas Day to retain its distinctive character as a moment in time when the rushing mania of modern life is briefly suspended – and most will respond enthusiastically in favour.

Ask people whether they think hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens ought to be – de facto – compelled to work on December 25th, and most will register their disapproval.

And yet it’s happening.

What can we do? I suspect it’s possible to do more than many of us think. The next time a work colleague, neighbour or friend says they will be eating in a restaurant on Christmas Day, we can point out to them – gently – that there is a social cost to this apparently innocuous choice.

And, if they perhaps have no choice but to eat-out or eat-in alone, then maybe we should think about inviting them to pull up a chair at our own dining table.

Homes that help explain the meaning of Christmas

By Joanna Roughton.
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Be honest. Do you think people who shroud their homes in Christmas lights are, well, a little odd?
I’m firmly in the: “well, I wouldn’t do it, but I’m glad they have” camp.
Partly, this is because my children adore one house in particular.
For the last six years, since we moved to our current home, they have goggled at the display bedecking one semi-detached property overlooking the local train station.
Every year on the stroke of December 1st, the illuminations appear again and remain there until Twelfth Night.
The display is always the same.
Multi-coloured bulbs festoon the walls, roof and garden.
Some people are sniffy about homes like this.
They are a naff, kitsch attempt to enforce seasonal jollification on neighbours and passers-by.
And, perhaps if I was living next door to a home that could be seen by the International Space Station, then I might be less enthusiastic.
But, just as I smile when I walk past a well-kept front garden, I find myself suffused with good-humour when I see our local house of lights.
It is a small act of kindness in a world where neighbourliness is in decline.
Someone has taken the time, and laid out no small amount of cash, to create something which a community can share.
The temptation is to sneer, to see in the display the fingerprints of a tasteless show-off.
But, to my mind, this is a reaction that we must rise above.
Certainly, there can be difficulties.
Sometimes residential streets can witness an arms race between householders who want to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ in the most visual manner imaginable.
Eco-warriors occasionally complain about the carbon footprint of all those unnecessarily burning light bulbs.
And, when a home assumes local notoriety, there can be minor traffic jams as people flock to see what – briefly – becomes a tourist attraction.
But if we shudder we might want to think twice.
If the Christmas message is about anything then it means making strangers welcome.

Can we stop teens talking to nobody other than fellow teens?

By Joanna Roughton.
The other day a simple, and all too regular event, crystallised my understanding of how limiting it is now to be a child.
I was driving the car back home from school. The radio was playing an interesting item about archaeology on the BBC. I started to talk about the story and turned for a response from my 13-year-old daughter, sitting in the passenger seat.
She was looking ahead, staring blankly. Then I noticed the tell-tale white cables poking from beneath her hair. She had her ear-phones in and was oblivious to my musings. I’d like to say she was listening to something edifying. But, the reality is that she was tuned to her music playlist.
This is not an irregular occurrence. I know, I know. A parent should insist that children don’t wander through life permanently plugged into their smartphones. But the reality of parenting is that child-rearing is about picking the battles to fight over.
A daily row with a child who wants to listen to a song on her way home from school is not a good use of my time. Anyway, we have agreed a compromise. Radio 4 on the way to school, their music on the way back.
It’s a little sad though. Ear-phones stop children from having incidental revelations. They preclude, not just a thought-provoking feature on a speech-radio channel, but also the conversations of their parents. Conversations which, eavesdropped on, will help school them in life.
There’s nothing completely new in my reservations. Parents have excoriated their children for decades about ‘closing themselves off’ with everything from comic-books to Walk-Mans.
But, it seems to me, that the smartphone represents a new order of threat for my generation of parents.
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It’s not just music, but everything which the internet on the move can provide.
And a recently published book tackles some of the questions raised by parents with deep misgivings like me.
Mark Bauerlein, is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardises Our Future.
In an interview with Time magazine he offered this summary of his book: “Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things: 17-year-olds never grow up if they’re just hanging around other 17-year-olds.”
This, I would submit, is of considerable interest to the Home Renaissance Foundation. The HRF believes that the home can be the setting for the transfer of wisdom and life-skills between generations. But, as Mark Bauerlein suggests, that transfer can’t happen if a teenager is permanently plugged into an electronic device where the only ‘conversation’ is by text and between people of the same age.
It doesn’t matter if grandma is there in the sitting-room, the smartphone – effectively – means she isn’t. When a child is attached to a smartphone, there is only one person with whom that child is sharing their home, and that is the person who is responding on Instagram, the friend on Facebook, the fellow-teen on Snapchat.
What to do? Well, the tide feels pretty irresistible, but we might at least be able to slow the inundation.
So we can insist, as this blog and many other people have argued before, that certain spaces in the home are smartphone-free. ‘No texting at the [dining] table!’, as the brilliant Canadian comic Anita Renfroe sang in her wonderful celebration of modern parenting ‘The Mom Song’.