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.

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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’.

Britain’s home-makers are owed billions

By Joanna Roughton.

After years of prevaricating, I have given in.

Yes, dear reader, I have hired a cleaner. Just two hours a week, scarcely enough time to pick up the dirty clothes thrown onto the floor by six lazy schoolchildren, but another rifle pointed from the trenches at the monster of domestic squalor.

It’s amazing what a cleaner can do in a couple of hours. Totally focused on her job, her efforts put mine to shame.

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Hitherto, I have avoided hiring a cleaner because of my previous experience. The cleaner was great. But seeing a pristine home transformed into something far messier in a matter of minutes, the moment the kids returned from school, was enough to put me off domestic help for years.

There was also the cost. The old cleaner came for three hours, three times a week. The new one will be with us weekly, and just for the two hours. She comes via an agency, who charge me £28 for two hours, of which £20 goes to the cleaner.

I thought about these modest sums in relation to the annual publication of unpaid work data by the Office for National Statistics.

This blog has heralded these figures before as the biggest step forward in home-making public relations for years.

And this year’s figures do not disappoint, as I’m about to relate. The only negative caveat is the almost total lack of follow-up in the national press.

So, the numbers then. The ONS values unpaid work done in the UK at £1 trillion. That is equivalent to about 56 per cent of the UK’s total GDP.

This includes every kind of household chore, from cooking to cleaning, from DIY to gardening. There is a gender bias to the results. The ONS found that women do twice the work men do around the home. On average, men do 16 hours a week of cooking, childcare, eldercare and housework – which includes things like laundry and cleaning. For women the figure rises to 26 hours.

The only family activity where men outperform women is where ‘dad’s taxi’ is concerned. Menfolk spend more time than women ferrying children around. They also spend more time commuting, which is deemed by the ONS to be unpaid work, and so included in the overall data.

This year’s figures do include an eye-catching and potentially very useful statistical innovation. The ONS has launched an ‘unpaid work calculator’, designed to help people work out the value of all the unpaid labour they provide.

Using this calculator, one hour of housework is equivalent to £8.58 a week or £446 a year. One hour of childcare is calculated to be worth £15.28 per week or £795 per annum. Meal preparation comes in at £7.63, or £397. Transport, be that taking a toddler to a playdate or commuting to work, is said to be worth £11.24 or £584.

I’m not sure I could hire a taxi for £11.24 per hour, but the broad point is useful.

The ONS says its calculator is based on data from earnings across the UK workforce in 2016 and is based on the principle of what one would pay someone to do the job instead of oneself. The average man would earn £166.63 more per week if his unpaid work was remunerated, whereas the average woman would earn £259.63.

And what happened when I used the calculator? Well, let’s just say that – at £20 a week – the new cleaner is a bargain, as I shall be reminding my husband.

Where do you live?

Two stories published this week – seemingly unconnected – but with one underlying message.

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The first – fittingly since  the hype around the absurdity of Black Friday reached new heights – concerns retailers. A report by the International Longevity Centre posits the idea that our town centres are, increasingly, off limits to old folk.

Feral teenagers and a fear of crime? A shortage of transport?

No, the reason elderly citizens are giving the shops a swerve is because there is nowhere for them to take a breather when they get there.
The Longevity Centre study found that one in five over-70s are put off shopping in town because of lack of somewhere to sit. Retailers, reluctant to ‘waste’ expensive square floor footage on benches or chairs, have reduced the amount of seating on offer.

Shops, for older people, are becoming less habitable.

The second story features property developers. And, on the surface, appears to present an opposite worldview.

This is the news that there has been a big increase in the number of shops being converted into flats in England

Shops, for younger people, are becoming more habitable.

In the year up to March 2016 the number of properties where there has been a ‘change of use’ rose by a third, from 20,650 to 30,600. The bulk were shops converted to accommodation, the rest were changed into residential units from offices.
What kind of homes do offices and shops make?

They can be wonderful. And they can be the only way that empty town centre units can be brought back to life.

But there is obviously a risk that a building constructed with one purpose in mind, is inadequate for another. Offices and shops use space differently. There are rarely gardens, or traditional parking. Imaginatively redesigned, they can produce fabulous open-plan living spaces. Botched, they can be a windowless box.

I draw a line between these two stories, because they offer a contradiction. On the one hand, town centres provide fewer places to sit, even as they offer more places to sleep. The reality, of course, is that age lies behind this discrepancy.
Our town centres are, increasingly, places of vanishing inter-generationality.

Because the shops and offices that are being turned into ‘funky’ loft spaces are not appealing to many older people. Nor do they attract much interest from families with children, for whom open-plan living is not always conducive to a good night’s sleep for a toddler.

And the shops which do not offer anywhere for the old to rest their weary feet also favour the youthful and strong limbed. The none-too-subliminal symbolism is hard to miss.

Town centres are places for the young. They are places of rejuvenation, of change, of movement. Where a building can morph from shop to office to bed-sit and back again in the space of a decade. Or less. Where shops focus on foot-fall and rapid ‘flows’ of people from door to till. No time for dawdling, dear.
Is any of this avoidable, or for that matter, undesirable?

I certainly think it is step in the wrong direction. People should not live in silos – defined by age or family status. Some of our town centres are now almost exclusively populated by young, urban professionals. Their day-to-day contact with people whose experience of life might be longer and more varied, is highly limited.

The flipside of this is that are suburbs which have become retirement villages, greatly in need of an infusion of youthful vitality and the idealism which characterises the inexperience of innocence.

We cannot, by law or compulsion, make different generations live together. So, I’m afraid, this is currently a problem without an obvious solution.

 

Are children really better off with working mums?

By Joanna Roughton.

‘Children Develop Faster When Their Mothers Go Out To Work’.

So said a headline on the front page of the Times of London this week.

It quoted academics from Oxford University. They claimed to have established that children whose mothers were not working had lower capabilities across ‘four measures of development’; talking, everyday tasks (like washing hands), social skills and movement.

The study stated that, by way of stark contrast, kids spending time at nursery did better.

Paying a stranger to bring up our children with other children meant a 10 per cent improvement in the performance of those everyday tasks.

With a crushing predictability one of the report’s co-authors, Oxford University’s Laurence Roope, giddily vaulted the imaginary line which must have once separated research and lobbying with these quotes.

“Time spent in daycare,” he said [has] “…a strongly positive effect. It’s very important for policymakers to support working mothers through flexible working and providing….good quality nurseries.”

Uhm. Good quality nurseries, eh?

As we know, getting smart, motivated people into daycare is proving to be a challenge. But what’s really interesting, I would submit, is that the authors, having elected to become lobbyists, do not lobby in a different direction.

Because the same research also found that when grandparents take care of children, there is a 5 per cent rise in ‘talking skills’ and a 10 per cent improvement in social skills.

Common sense suggests there is some truth at work here. Grandparents, by dint of belonging to an older generation, are more likely to be sticklers for P’s and Q’s.

Their vocabulary is likely to be richer. Having corrected their children’s solecisms, they are naturally trained to help their grandchildren.

And yet the authors do not seem to be advocating a push for more care to be provided inter-generationally within a family. They appear to prefer ignoring the family and contracting-out parenting to strangers either employed or regulated by the state.

The other problem with this research is summed up by the commentator Libby Purves. She wrote: “[the] research was either done among the more hopeless, deprived and depressed families, where mothers stare at the telly all day, or among the particularly stupid super-rich where mothers shop and socialise and leave the infants in the care of a duff au pair who resents the lot of them.”

Libby Purves correctly identifies the enduring drawback of so much data crunching, particularly where families are concerned.

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Very often, it seems to me, the good things that are going on in a family are magnified when the family is stable. The corollary of that is that when a family is unstable, chaotic, vulnerable – call it what we must – then the things which make a happy family happier, make an unhappy family glummer.

For instance a study published this week by Florida Atlantic University, and widely reported, showed how siblings can adversely influence each other. The research argued that a youngster is more likely to pick up bad habits – boozing, taking drugs – from a brother or sister than anyone else. Their influence is greater than parents or peers at school.

On one level this is obvious. Siblings usually spend a lot of time together and a younger child sometimes idolises an older child and uses them as a role model.

But plenty of other research is out there (some of it drawn together in a book my husband wrote for the think-tank Civitas) which demonstrates the protective effect of siblings. The point is that where a family is functional, siblings are a catalyst for good behaviour. Where a family has problems, those difficulties can be exacerbated by siblings.

And so, I would argue, the same analysis can be applied to a lot of family research. Naturally, researchers try and ‘control’ for background but, as Libby Purves hints, it is reasonable to imagine that hapless stay-at-home parents do not represent all stay-at-home parents.

There is, to be callous for a moment, a world of difference between a home-maker who has decided to forfeit a career and who brings her life-skills to bear on the home, and a young mum, perhaps straight out of school, who has never – and may never – do a job.

 

 

Ditch the guilt of parenting

By Joanna Roughton.

Which emotion most characterises modern parenthood? Joy? Fulfilment? If only. I’m putting my money on guilt. It’s rarely justified, but boy oh boy, it’s increasingly the way mums and dads are encouraged to relate to their role as child-rearers.

Take a story in the Daily Mail at the weekend. Just remember. The Mail is the most read news website in the world. So this is a media outlet with serious reach.

This article, which attracted more than a few clicks, opened with the following words: “Parents spend more time taking care of housework than they do playing with their children, a study has found.”

It went on: “Humdrum admin tasks and cleaning jobs mean parents are struggling to get quality time with their children, but many admit that ignoring the chores isn’t an option as it leaves them feeling too stressed.

“The study found the average parent spends almost four hours a day completing household chores, which amounts to over two months every year. In comparison, just three hours and 28 minutes a week is spent enjoying time with their children.

“Long working hours, busy diaries, social calendars and children preferring to watch TV were also blamed for getting in the way of family time.”

Wow. Mea maxima culpa guys. Fancy putting all that ironing ahead of finger painting with the kids.

What balderdash. And what tosh on several levels.

First, a good parent has to prioritise, and putting a functional home near the top of that list of priorities is sound – not slapdash – parenting. Edible food, clean work surfaces, school uniforms which are fit to wear. These are not optional “humdrum” extras. Unless you are rich enough to contract out these jobs to a housekeeper or nanny – and only a tiny minority can – then these things are vital.

If you don’t believe me ask a child whether they’d rather spend “quality time” with parents, or go to school wearing a smelly shirt.

Second, the notion that mothers and fathers should consider a central role of parenting to be the entertainment of their offspring is a modern idea with unproven repercussions. It is rooted in the blurring of roles, a narrowing of the distance between those bringing up and those being brought up. Fashionable parenting doctrine urges parents to see themselves as friends to their young, and relegates the pedagogical. As I have heard myself say to my children before: “I am your parent first, and your friend second, I am not here to win you approval.”

Third, let us parse that last quote in the article above. Having blasted housework as the villain of the piece, we then hear that “long working hours, busy diaries, social calendars and children preferring to watch TV were also blamed for getting in the way of family time.”

Now, it’s obviously inconvenient to so much as hint at the outdated fancy that “long working hours” might play a role in diminishing the amount of ‘quality time’ parents spend with their kids, but it does rather all seem to be of a piece with the conventional wisdom – for women mainly – that working is natural, a right, a necessity – and not a choice.

In reality the biggest threat to ‘quality time’ with children is not housework, it’s work. And this brings me to my fourth point.

Why are the authors of the report not exploring or acknowledging the possibility that it is the explosion in the number of households where no parent is at home that lies at the root of any diminution in the amount of time adults and children spend together.

I would submit it might be because that, where stories about family life are concerned, there’s usually an angle. Academic work is mostly trustworthy, reports from campaign groups less so, and the output of company press offices least reliable of all. The survey on which this Daily Mail story was based came from – you guessed it – a business which makes, er…, beds. It would be a brave corporate press officer indeed who produced a press release which noted the pretty obvious verity that a child can expect to see less of mum if she’s at work. But then a mum who works and has disposable income is more likely to buy a bed, right?

Fifth and final point. What is the effect of making parents feel guilty? The impact is to raise the bar of parenting. My husband says the rising expectations of parenting have created a gold standard of child-rearing which can only be met by the parents of one or two children – small families – or by those rich enough to get others to do the heavy lifting of parenting. So the consequence of all those – seemingly innocuous – stories, is to make having children less attractive and, therefore, smaller or ‘childless families’, more appealing.