Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘children

Adults say the darnedest things

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I just re-encountered the fiction (and real-life) cliche of the child–adult exchange “He started it!”–“That is no excuse!”. This is a good example of adults telling children things that simply do not make sense,* and that are likely to leave the children unconvinced: “He started it!” is not just an excuse—it is a perfectly legitimate reason. There might be situations where it can be pragmatically better to turn the other cheek, try to deescalate, find a more constructive solution than retaliation, whatnot; however, that has no impact on the ethics of the issue and expecting a child to understand such matters is highly optimistic.** Furthermore, there are many cases where retaliation in kind is the best solution, especially when boundary pushers and bullies are concerned (which will very often be the case with children): Both being exposed to consequences for inappropriate behavior and having to take a dose of one’s own medicine can have a great positive effect in limiting future inappropriate behavior.

*I suspect that this is partly due to the answer being dishonest, that the adult is motivated by something unstated. (“What” will depend on context, but a fear of negative consequences from e.g. fights between children could be high on the list, as could a wish to just keep some degree of peace and quit.)

**And arguments in that direction are usually absent to begin with.

Note how the “adult” reply makes no attempt at providing reasons or actually convincing, and how a discussion of pros and cons is entirely absent—it is just an (invalid) claim that the child is supposed to take at face value “because I said so”. No wonder that children are not more cooperative…

The “because I said so” is, of course, a good example in its own right—the effect of such argumentation is that the child’s rejection of a claim is complemented by a feeling that the adult is an unreasonable dictator. It might or might not create compliance in action, but compliance in thought is not to be expected. Worse, it could have a harmful long-term effect on the relationship. It is true that there might be a point where a child is too young or the situation too critical for a deeper discussion to beneficial; however, the uses that I have seen (be it in fiction or in real life) would usually have benefited from a motivation.* Consider** e.g. a child’s refusal do the dishes countered with “because I said so” vs. “we agreed that everyone should take a turn—and today is your day”; the adult’s refusal to play based on “because I said so” vs. “I am sorry, but I am dead tired and need to take a nap”; or even any discussion resulting in “because I said so” vs. “I pay the bills; I make the rules”. The last example might superficially seem to offer no real difference, but most children (above a certain age) will at least be able to see the adult perspective of the bill payer and the hypothetical alternative of buying greater freedom through going hungry and homeless—but not of the more power-based “because I said so”. (Also note that “I am the parent; I make the rules” is closer to the dictator than to the bill payer.) At the same time, I advice against reasonable sounding arguments that do not make sense on closer inspection or that could back-fire.***

*Generally, even among adults, I recommend that any rule and whatnot be given some form of motivation, so that those affected know why something should or should not be done. This to increase the chance of compliance, to make more informed choices possible (e.g. when dealing with interpretation and special cases), and to allow a critique of the rule with an eye on future improvement.

**I stress that I do not consider the alternative arguments to be silver-bullets—dealing with children is hard and often amounts to a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” situation. They are, however, improvements.

***E.g. “That is no excuse!” above. A more interesting example stems from my own childhood (pre-VCR): My mother argued that she should watch the news on the bigger color-TV and I a simultaneously broadcast movie on the smaller black-and-white one, because she had not seen the news in a week (due to a study absence). From my perspective, the negative effects of the inferior device on a movie were larger than on the news, and it might be years (not a week) before another opportunity to watch that movie arose. The result? I was left with not only an implicit “because I said so”—but also with the feeling that my mother was dishonest… (Adult me is open to the alternative that she simply had not thought the matter through.)

A sometime reasonable, but more often misguided, argument is “And if your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you follow them?!?” (with many variations). The analogy involved is usually inappropriate (notably regarding dangers) and/or too subtle (the “lemming” aspect). Normally, the only justification is that it came as a response to a weak argument from the (typically?) teenager, e.g. “but all my friends are going”. Here, however, such “smart ass” answers are not helpful. Better would be to evaluate the suggestion (e.g. going to a certain party) on its merits, factoring in both the fact that “all my friends” can seem like a strong argument to the teenager (even when it is not), and that there are at least some cases where the argument has merit through its impact on teenage life* or through giving a different perspective**.

*The degree to which adults should be concerned about this is limited, but it is not something to ignore entirely. There are aspects of popularity and networking that might be largely alien to an adult (and to some teens, including my younger self); however, they are there and showing them some consideration is not wrong.

**Notably, that something is wide-spread and tolerated by other parents could point to a too restrictive own attitude.

Generally, I caution against giving “smart ass” answers to children, and recommend using only factual arguments. For instance, my school class would sometimes be asked to explain/solve/perform/… something that had simply never been taught (especially when teachers changed). Typically, someone would reply with the idiomatic “det har vi inte fått lära oss”, which carries the clear intent of “that has not been taught” (and an implicit “so you cannot fairly require us to know”). Unfortunately, this phrase is vulnerable to the deliberate misinterpretation of “we have not been allowed to learn this” and the answer was invariably along the lines of “Who has forbidden it?”. The results on the class were never positive… To boot, this answer is doubly unfair in that (a) the students cannot be expected to guess what the next teacher considers “must haves” when the previous teacher saw things differently, and (b) traditional schooling severely limits the time, energy, and (often) interest available for own learning in addition to the official curriculum. (Note that both, even taken singly, invalidate the potentially valid angle that this answer does have—that learning should not be limited to school and that teachers usually indicate the minimum to learn.)

In a bigger picture, adults often impose constraints or obligations on children that make little sense. For instance, what is the point of a child making his own bed, should he not see a benefit for himself in doing so? There is no automatic advantage in a made bed and if no-one else is hurt by it… Indeed, apart from when I receive visitors (actual reason) or change the sheets (trivial extra effort), it might be more than twenty years since I, as an adult, made my bed.

Excursion on women as perpetrators:
While errors like those above are by no means limited to women, they do appear to be considerably more likely from women. It is conceivable that at least some of the problem stems from an arbitrary imposition of some irrational values that often occur among women (e.g. that any and all violence no matter the reason is evil, or a wish for orderliness-for-the-sake-of-orderliness).

Excursion on fairness:
Much of the above is related to the feeling of being unfairly treated. A fair treatment is by no means a guarantee for a happy and well-behaved child; however, the opposite will make things worse. Where fair treatment might be important to most adults (at least when on the receiving end…); it is paramount to most children.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 13, 2018 at 2:08 am

A paradoxical problem with school

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An interesting paradoxical effect of the current school system is that it simultaneously prevents children from being children and from developing into adults.

The resolution to this paradox is obviously that positive parts of “being children” are suppressed while the negative parts are enforced and prolonged. (Consider also the similar differentiation into child-like and child-ish human characteristics.)

Children in school are severely hindered in (sometimes even prevented from) just enjoying life, playing, walking around in nature, exercising the child’s curiosity, … At the same time, they are being taught just to do what they are told without thinking for themselves or to taking own initiatives, removed from any true responsibility, kept with other children instead of with adults*, … Play and similar activities, when they do occur, are often restricted and “organized fun”. The positive part of being a child is now curtailed around six or seven years of age; the negative is often prolonged into the “children’s” twenties, when they leave college** and get their first jobs—often even moving away from mother for the first time… In contrast, in other times, it was not at all unlikely for teenagers to already have formed families of their own, having children of their own, working at the same tasks as the rest of the adults, etc.***

*Cf. brief earlier discussions on what type of models and examples are presented to children.

**I stress that this is only partially due to the prolonging of studies per se: The more dangerous part is possibly the increasing treatment of college students as children. Cf. e.g. any number of online articles on the U.S. college system, or how Germany has increasingly switched to mandatory-presence lectures in the wake of the Bologna process. (The latter is doubly bad, because it not only reduces the need to take own responsibility, etc.—it also imposes an inefficient way of studying.)

***Indeed, I very, very strongly suspect that the explanation for many of the conflicts between teenagers and their parents are rooted in humans being built for this scenario, with the teenager having a biological drive to assume an adult role and the parent still seeing a little child. Similarly, that some teenagers (especially female ones) treat romantic failures as the end of the world is no wonder—once upon a time it could have been: Today, the boy-friend at age 15 will usually turn out to be a blip on the radar screen—in other times, he was quite likely to be the future (or even current…) father of her children. Similarly, starting over at 17 might have meant that “all the good ones are taken”.

If we compare two twenty-somethings that only* differ in that the one spent his whole life until now in school and the other went through some mix of home-schooling and early work-experience, not even going to college—who will be the more mature, have the better social skills, have more life experience, whatnot? Almost certainly the latter. Of course, the graduate will have other advantages, but it is not a given that they outweigh the disadvantages in the short** term. Why not try to combine the best of both worlds, with a mixture of studies (preferably more independent and stimulating studies) and work*** from an earlier age?

*This is a very important assumption, for the simple reason that if we just pick an average college graduate and an average non-graduate, there are likely to be systematic differences of other types, notably in I.Q. I am not suggesting that non-graduates are automatically superior to graduates.

**In the long term, the graduate will probably catch up—but would he be better off than someone who worked five years after high school and then went to college?

***Here we could run into trouble with child-labor laws. However, these should then possibly be re-evaluated: They are good in as far as they protect children from abuse, unwarranted exploitation, and health dangers; they are bad in as far as they hinder the child’s journey to an adult. I have also heard claimed (but have not investigated the correctness) that such laws had more to do with enabling schooling than they did with child-protection. To the degree that this holds true, they certainly become a part of the problem.

To boot, schooling often gives an incorrect impression of how the world works in terms of e.g. performance and reward. In school, do your work well and you get a reward (a gold star, an “A”, whatnot); in the work-force, things can be very, very different. Want to get a raise? Then ask for a raise—and give convincing arguments as to why you are worth it. The fact that you have done a good job is sometimes enough; however, most of the time, an employer will simply enjoy your work at the lowest salary he can get away with—why should he spend more money to get the same thing? Similarly, where a teacher will have access to test results and other semi-objective/semi-reliable explicit measures of accomplishment, such measures are rarely available to employers. For that matter, if your immediate superior knows that you do a good job, is he the one setting your pay? Chances are that the decision makers simply do not know whether you are doing a good job—unless you convince them.

At the same time, we must not forget that “being children” is also potentially valuable to the children’s development—it is not just a question of having fun and being lazy. On the one hand, we have to consider the benefit of keeping e.g. curiosity alive and not killing it (as too often is the case in school); on the other, there is much for children to learn on their own (at least for those so inclined). As a child, I probably learned more from private reading and TV documentaries than I did in school even as it were—what if I had less school and more spare time? Chances are that I would have seen a net gain in my learning… I am not necessarily representative for children in general, but there are many others like me, and at a minimum this points to the problems with a “one size fits all” approach to school.

Or look specifically at play: An interesting aspect of play is that it is a preparation for adult life, and in some sense “play” equals “training”. It is true that the adult life of today is very different from in, say, the neolithic, but there are many aspects of this training that can still be relevant, including team work, cooperation, leadership, conflict resolution, …—not to mention the benefits of being in better shape through more exercise. These are all things that schools like to claim that they train, but either do not or do so while failing miserably. Chances are that play would do a better job—and even if it does not, it would approach the job differently and thereby still give a benefit. As an additional twist, I strongly suspect that the more active and physical “boy’s play” has suffered more than “girl’s play” in terms of availability, which could contribute to the problems boys and young men of today have. I have definitely read several independent articles claiming that the ADHD epidemic is better cured with more play and an understanding of boys’ needs than with Ritalin (and find the claim reasonable, seeing that ADHD, or an unnamed equivalent, was only a marginal phenomenon in the past).

Excursion on myself:
While I (born in 1975) pre-date the normal border for the “millennial” generation, I have seen a number of problems in my own upbringing and early personality that match common complaints* about millenials or even post-millenials—and for very similar reasons. For instance, I left high school without a clue about adult behavior, responsibilities, skills, …, having never been forced to confront these areas and having never been given much relevant instruction**, be it in school or at home. Once in college, this started to change, notably with regard to own responsibility, but not in every regard. Had I not left the country as an exchange student, thereby being forced to fend for myself in a number of new ways, I would almost certainly have entered the work-force in the state of preparation associated with the millenials. What I know about being an adult, I have mostly learned on my own with only marginal help from school and family***/****—and almost all of it since moving away from home at age nineteen… My sister, length of education excepted, followed an even more millennial path, with even less responsibility at home, a far longer time living with her mother, whatnot, and, as far as I can judge, still has not managed to shake the millennial way—at age forty. Making own decisions and living with the consequences, taking responsibility for oneself or others, not relying on parents to help, understanding from own experience that the world and its population is not perfect, …, these are all things that truly matter to personal development and ability to be an adult—and it is far better to gradually learn to cope from an early age than to be thrown out into the cold as a twenty-something.

*I stress that these complaints can be too generalizing and/or fail to consider the effects of being younger, in general, as opposed to specifically millennial; further, that the problems that do exist are not necessarily equally large everywhere.

**We did have variations on the “home economics” theme, but there was little or no content that I have found to be of relevance to my adult life. To boot, these classes came much too early, with many years going by between the point where (what little there were of) skills were taught and when they would have become relevant to my life—so early that I would still have had to re-learn the contents to gain a benefit. That home-economics teachers are pretty much the bottom of the barrel even among teachers certainly did not help.

***In all fairness, it is not a given that I, personally and specifically, would have been receptive had e.g. my mother tried to give me more advice than she did. This should not serve as an excuse for other parents, however. Other aspects, like having to fend more for myself at an earlier date would have been easily doable—even had I not enjoyed it at the time.

****Sadly, much of what I did pick up from my mother were things that I, in light of later own experiences, ended up disagreeing with, either because of different preferences or because it was not a good idea to begin with.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 22, 2017 at 7:38 pm

A few thoughts around childhood recollections

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Through a somewhat random chain of association, I find myself thinking about one of my childhood’s favorite objects: Skåpsängen*.

*I am not aware of an English translation. Literally, “säng” is “bed”, “-en” is “the”, and “skåp” can, depending on context, translate as e.g. “cupboard” or “closet”. Below, I will speak of “box” for the “skåp” part, because this matches the internal structure best, even if it was larger and more finely worked than what I picture when I hear “wooden box”. I keep the word with a capital “S” because it always came over as a proper name to me—not a mere noun or a mere description. (This was often the case with me. Cf. “mormorsfranska” below.)

This was a foldable bed-in-a-box, that I used to sleep in when visiting my maternal grand-parents as a young child. As a result of the construction, I lied down with my head well within the box, which was something of a world of its own. Not only did the walls and roof shelter* me, but I often found myself just staring at the walls for minutes at a time, following the grain of the wood, especially the brown patterns formed by wood knots, or admiring one or two little pencil drawings (possibly drawn by my mother in her youth)—almost as good as TV. My positive associations are strengthened by how grand-parents spoil their grand-children and the “exotic” overall environment, with its new smells, different and older furniture**, different food***, toys that once belonged to my mother and her brother …—and, obviously, the grand-parents themselves.

*In my subjective impression. There was, of course, no actual danger or discomfort to shelter against.

**Including some actual antiques that had been handed down from an even older generation than my grand-parents’.

***Including what I thought was named “mormorsfranska”, but was actually just a descriptive “mormors franska”—“[my specific] grand-mother’s [style of] bread rolls”, often given to me while tucked into the bed.

While a trip down memory lane is all fine and dandy*, it is not something that I often write about. However, there are a few thought-worthy things and my mind kept wandering back to other childhood memories and potential lessons, a few of which I will discuss below.

*Or not: By now, I am actually feeling quite sad, seeing that the grand-parents (and mother) are all dead, the house was torn down decades ago, Skåpsängen probably does not exist anymore, most of the other things likely have gone the same way, the innocence of childhood has long passed, …, One of the risks with looking back at happy times gone by, instead of forward to happy times to come or at the happy times of the now, is that the element of loss can ruin the experience—and the happier the memory, the greater the loss.

The most notable is how my child’s mind could be so fascinated with the walls of the box, where I today might have had a look around and then immersed myself in a book or my computer. This is largely because a child is easier to amuse and stimulate than an adult, who (often) needs something more challenging, and whose curiosity has moved on to other areas. Not only are such contrasts between the child and the adult important in order to understand children and (e.g. in my case) developing a greater tolerance for them, but when similar variations are present in the adult population they can become a tool to understand humanity as a whole better. Consider e.g. how a difference in intelligence levels can cause one person to view a certain activity as too easy to bother with, while another might be challenged and stimulated, and the activity that challenges and stimulates the former might simply be too hard for the latter; or how some might be more interested in stimulation through thinking and some more* through perception, and/or the two having different preferences for channels of perception.

*At least here the “more” is of importance: There seems to be quite a few people who really do not like to think, but few or none who are entirely cold towards sensory perceptions. More often, it is a question of prioritizing them, or some forms of them, lower than other things.

However, another partial explanation is likely the modern tendencies to crave more active forms of stimulation and not appreciating the little things in life: There can be a benefit found in, for a few minutes a day, just relaxing, cutting out stronger sources of stimulation (e.g. blogging or TV), and just focusing on and enjoying something small in the moment. (While I have resolved to deliberately and regularly do so on a few occasions, the resolution has usually been forgotten within a week. It still happens, obviously, but more accidentally and likely not as often as it should.)

Yet another contributing factor, especially for an adult, is today’s intense competition for our attention: There is so much entertainment, so much to learn, so much to see and do, that a dozen life-times would be too little. Back then, for a child, shortly before lights out*? The competition might have been re-reading a comic or just letting my thoughts wander while staring out into the room…

*Possibly more metaphorically than literally, since I was afraid of the dark and usually insisted that the lights be left on—which could, obviously, have prolonged the time available to look at the box…

An event that took place in Skåpsängen during my very early childhood is another good illustration of the difference between more childish and more adult reactions, resp., among adults, more emotional and more rational ones: The most favorite object of my childhood was a toy penguin. At some point after dark, one of its button eyes came off. I raised hell, annoyed my grand-mother (who, understandably, did not see this as a big deal) severely, and ended up being ungrateful when she sew another button on, without locating the original. (My memory of the exact details is a little vague, but I strongly suspect that if I had seen the “injury” as less urgent and waited until the following morning, the original button would have been used.) Apart from the repeated implications on understanding children and, possibly, humans in general, there are at least two lessons: Firstly, that someone who is very upset and/or makes a lot of noise does not necessarily have a legitimate complaint, or a complaint more worthy than that of more reasonable protesters. Secondly, that we should not expect gratitude from these people if we try to satisfy them…

Importantly, however, I did not complain loudly and stubbornly because of any calculation*—I did it because I was very genuinely upset: I was unable to comprehend that this truly was no big deal. Even if we allow that a child can have a very strong emotional connection to a toy penguin**, this was not a damage that was noteworthy, debilitating, or hard to fix—a few minutes with needle, thread, and (preferably the original…) button, and everything would be fine. For I all know, exactly that could have happened to the other eye at some point when I was asleep and unaware of the events, having no way to tell after the fact. This type of inability to make correct assessments is regrettably very common among adults too, if not in such extremely obvious cases.

*In contrast, I suspect that e.g. a large part of the PC crowd is driven by calculation when it comes to their style of protest. I use similar tactics, on occasion, when dealing with e.g. spamming companies-where-I-placed-a-single-order-and-never-consented-to-any-advertising: Reasoning very obviously does not convince them that they are doing something grossly unethical, so let us see whether they pay attention when a customer leaves in (apparent) anger. (To early to tell, but I am not optimistic.)

**Which we certainly should: Even now, I find myself having a surprisingly strong reaction when thinking back, stronger than e.g. when thinking of the real-life people that I later went to school with… Similarly, one of the most enduringly popular songs in Sweden, since before my own birth, is “Teddybjörnen Fredriksson”, dealing with the nostalgic feelings of a grown man towards his childhood teddy bear (named Fredriksson). I suspect that it is better known and more beloved among Swedes that the top hits of ABBA and Roxette.

Children do provide many, with hindsight, ridiculous examples. The proudest moment of my life came when I, about four years old, gave my grand-father a tip on how to repair a broken (probably) 16mm film—and he, an actual adult!, followed my tip. Did I save the day, like I thought? No: As I realized later in life, he would have done the exact same thing anyway. (As implied e.g. by the fact that he already had the right equipment for the repair.) Similarly, the first, and possibly only, time I played croquet, at about the same age, I was very proud at having beaten my grown-up uncle. (He claimed that I did, and who was I too disagree, not even understanding the rules…) Can you say “Dunning–Kruger”?

The pride aspect is yet another case where children could differ from mature adults: I am not necessarily free from pride, but this particular type of pride (as opposed to e.g. contentment) over a specific event or a specific accomplishment is comparatively rare, and it seems pointless and vain to me for anything but the greatest accomplishments (major scientific break-throughs, Olympic medals, …) Then again, I need not be representative for adults. For instance, while I keep my college diplomas somewhere in a stack of paper, many others, including my mother, have theirs framed and hung on the wall.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 22, 2017 at 10:03 pm

Interpreting statistics and research (housework among boys and girls)

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I just encountered a Swedish news service claiming that “Girls help [do housework] more at home”/“Flickor hjälper till mer hemma”.

While this article, to my mild surprise, did not make the usual partisan statements of e.g. “Girls are better at X”, it still manages to show some common problems with reading of statistics and how poor critical thinking can lead people (in particular, journalists) astray.

To quote relevant parts:

SCB har undersökt vilka hushålls-
sysslor barn i åldrarna 10-18 år
hjälper till med.

83 procent av flickorna och 79 pro-
cent av pojkarna hjälper till med hus-
hållsarbete minst en timme i veckan.

([“The bureau of statistics”] has investigated what household chores children in the age range 10–18 years help with.

83 per cent of the girls and 79 per cent of the boys help with household work for at least an hour a week.)

Syssla; Flickor; Pojkar

Bäddar sin säng; 82 proc; 77 proc

Diskar eller plockar i/ur diskmaskinen; 81 proc; 71 proc

Städar sitt rum; 78 proc; 64 proc

Tar hand om syskon; 35 proc; 36 proc

Arbetar utomhus; 23 proc; 40 proc

(Task; Girls; Boys

Makes own bed; 82 %; 77 %

Does the dishes or loads/unloads the dish-washer; 81 %; 71 %

Cleans own room; 78 %; 64 %

Takes care of siblings; 35 %; 36 %

Works outdoors; 23 %; 40 %)

(The news service in questione does not provide an archive, so I cannot give a permanent link. Should I encounter the data from another source, I will add one.)

Going by the numbers presented (but beware that the full report may give another view; for instance, the list of task is likely to be abbreviated), the claim is highly dubious. Firstly, the difference in overall numbers is comparatively small (certainly not large enough to allow for predictions about individuals) and, depending on the size of the sample, could lack statistical significance. Secondly, and more importantly, the tasks are oddly chosen:

Both making ones own bed and cleaning ones own room are things that do not constitute “helping at home”—they are something that a child in the age bracket given either does or does not do for his/her own benefit. (Similarly, baking cookies for ones own consumption is not “helping at home” either—nor is tweaking ones own moped.)

The natural step would be to adjust the overall numbers by removing these entries. For lack of in-depth data, this is not possible; however, we can make a very rough first comparison by simply adding percentages. Now, in the original version we have 82 + 81 + 78 + 35 + 23 = 299 for the girls and 77 + 71 + 64 + 36 + 40 = 288 for the boys. (Pleasingly, 288 / 299 * 83 is just shy of 80, which compares well to the original 79 % overall for boys—in particular, as rounding can cause minor distortions.) Removing the “self serving” tasks, we instead have 81 + 35 + 23 = 139 for the girls and 71 + 36 + 40 = 147 for the boys—who are now ahead by more than they used to trail (as a proportion of the total).

The tentative conclusion, then: Boys (!) help more at home. (Incidentally and anecdotally: This was definitely the case when looking at me and my sister as teenagers. She could barely be bothered to put her own plates in the dish-washer; I moved the lawn and chopped wood for the fireplace.) Of course, I cannot guarantee that this would remain true if the raw data was re-investigated, but the gap is sufficiently large that the original claim (that girls help more) should be viewed as unsupported.

As an aside, the removed categories reflect an issue that is worth keeping in mind when discussing housework: Men and women have different priorities when it comes to cleaning and use of available time. (In my opinion, men have it the right way around and women should take a more relaxed attitude.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm