Tag Archives: school

Parenting, Helplessness, and a Brand New Adventure

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Photo by Flickr user darkday

Master Nine came home from school one day in February and burst into tears. “No one likes me,” he said. “Everyone’s mean to me.”

My heart froze. I would do anything to have my children avoid the type of bullying I went through as a child. And yet here he was, saying the exact words that I remember saying at his age. I wanted to scream and shout and wrap my arms around him and never let him go. But before I did anything, I took a deep breath. It was possible — only possible, mind you — that I was overreacting.

After all, he was eight. And it’s developmentally normal for children his age to go through a period where they feel like no one likes them; where they feel like they have no friends as they take place in normal social push-and-pull power plays.

So I listened to him, and I gave him a hug, and l I told him it would be all right.

I was wrong.

By the end of March, Master Nine no longer wanted to go to school.  He no longer wanted to go anywhere. He was scared. All the time. Of school, yes, but also of everything else. He was terrified of familiar stories; of movies he’d seen a hundred times; of the thoughts in his head; of new people and old friends and leaving the house. He couldn’t get to sleep. And when he finally did, collapsing from exhaustion, he’d be woken by nightmares once, twice, three times a night.

Every night.

By April, he was suffering panic attacks every night. He’d lie in bed thinking about having to go to school the next day, and then stagger out, hours later, whimpering and struggling to breathe. I’d put a hand on his chest and feel his heartbeat, like fluttering hummingbird wings inside his chest, then hold his ice-cold hands while I helped him calm down; breathing with him, in and out, and gently reassuring him that he was okay. Eventually, he’d collapse against me and sob himself into a restless sleep, and I’d carry him back to bed.

One day in mid-April, when I was encouraging Master Nine (yet again) to tell the teacher if someone made him feel upset or uncomfortable, he looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing I can do to stop them. Not even the teachers can stop them. There’s no point trying.”

I cried.

I cried for his pain. I cried for my own. I cried for eight-year-old me who felt exactly like the same way, and desperately wanted an adult to step in and make everything better. I cried for current-day me, because now I was that adult. And I still didn’t know what to do.

I thought I’d felt helpless as a child. But being a parent, watching you child feeling helpless, and still being helpless yourself? Helplnessness to the power of infinity.

We need help, like quick, on the double

One morning in late April, Master Nine snuck into my bedroom and said, “Mummy, I think I need to go to the doctor.”

“Okay, Sweetheart. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. But everybody hates me, so something must be wrong with me. If we go to the doctor, she can give me some medicine to make me normal.”

Once upon a time, about six months ago, Master Nine was a confident young man who didn’t hesitate to talk to people — whether adults or children — and wouldn’t let me go with him into doctor’s offices. So on the day that we went to the doctor — after many hugs and reassurances from me that he is not only normal but perfect just the way he is — I realised just how much he’d changed.

He flat-out refused to talk tot he doctor without me, clinging to my arm like a tired two-year-old and not making eye contact with anyone else in the waiting room. When we went into the doctor’s office, he hunched his shoulders over and hid behind my back, then collapsed into a chair, pulled his knees up to his chest, and pulled the hood of his hoodie up over his head so he could hide in its shadows. Over the next ten minutes, Master Nine answered the doctor’s questions in whispered monosyllables . He said only one full sentence during that visit; one full sentence in response to a question about what makes him feel happy: “I don’t remember what it feels like to be happy.”

We didn’t get magic medicine. But we did get a referral to a child psychologist.

At his first appointment, I took Master Nine into the psychologist’s office and waited for him to be engrossed in an activity before quietly making my way back out to the waiting room. The psychologist talked to Master Nine for almost an hour, and then called me in. “He’s highly intelligent, isn’t he?” was the first thing she said to me. “Such a conceptual thinker.”

In the psychologist’s opinion, Master Nine had a healthy attachment to me and the rest of the family, felt completely secure and at ease at home, but was struggling to deal with the trauma of the bullying he’d endured. Her biggest concern was that he’d lost confidence in his own ability to tell friend from foe — he’d developed trust issues. She suggested he start a new social activity — one completely unrelated to his school or anyone he already knew — to get some social “wins” on the board, and taught me some relaxation exercises to use to help him with his sleeping.

Things started to improve a little. But only a little. The relaxation exercises helped him sleep, and nightmares became less frequent. But he still hated school. His reading ability was getting worse and worse, and he was too scared he’d get a question wrong to practice any maths. I started to get concerned not only about his emotional wellbeing, but also about how his emotional wellbeing was affecting his learning. And then, towards the end of May, he started telling me that he couldn’t remember whole chunks of time. A particular example that stayed with me was the time he remembered going into class, then the teacher raising her voice. The next thing he remembered, the teacher was crouched in front of him, gently suggesting he go out to lunch. That’s when he realised the class was over, and all the other kids had already gone outside.

Decision-making is hard

I started thinking about pulling Master Nine out of school back in March — back when his anxiety symptoms were starting to worry me. But I persevered, trying to make things work out. I probably did so for far too long, in retrospect; not trusting myself to make the right decision. I second, third, and fourth-guessed myself.

  • Was I projecting? Did I think things were worse than they really were because of what I’d been through as a child?
  • Was I being over-protective? Was this something he needed to experience to help him grow? Would removing him from the situation stunt his emotional growth?
  • Was this experience something that would pass? Was it a storm in a teacup?
  • Was this experience teaching him resilience and courage? If I removed him from the situation, would that just teach him to run away when things got hard?

I didn’t trust myself to make the decision. And so no decision was made. Right up until a day came when I tried to drop Master Nine off at school and he literally couldn’t get out of the car. Every time he put his feet on the ground, he started shaking and retching convulsively. His skin had turned a distressing shade of grey, and his hands were freezing cold. I closed the car door, got back in, and drove away.

We saw his psychologist later that day. She listened to me describe what had happened, talked to him for an hour, then told me exactly what I didn’t want (but needed) to hear: “He’s suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. You need to get him out of that environment. Now.”

I withdraw him that afternoon.

Playing the blame game…

The first instinct of people on hearing about something like this is to cast about for who to blame. Well, here’s what I think: Playing the blame game is counter-productive, unhelpful, and irrelevant. And I have no interest in doing it.

I don’t blame the children who bullied him. Firstly, because they’re good kids — I’ve known most of them since they were five years old. And while their behaviour led Master Nine to a place of trauma, it hasn’t (to my knowledge) had the same effect on the other children. Besides, children will inevitably push boundaries and see what happens. It’s how they learn about the world.  They need guidance to help them develop empathy and socially acceptable behaviour. If they don’t get that guidance… well, we’ve all read Lord of the Flies, haven’t we?

But I certainly don’t blame the parents. Again, I’ve known most of them for years. They’re all wonderful, loving, generous, kind people, doing everything they can to raise their children to be just as wonderful, loving, generous, and kind.

It would be easy to blame the school, but easy isn’t the same as right. I do believe there were some systemic issues that contributed to the situation, however as soon as I spoke to the staff about them, changes were made. The teachers and admin staff were responsive and open and caring. They did everything they could to change and manage and improve things for Master Nine. And I thank them for that.

If I was forced to lay the blame somewhere, however, I would lay it at the feet of our society as a whole, which simultaneously condemns and endorses bullying. But that’s a discussion for another day.

New Adventures, Dead Ahead!

Since the day I told Master Nine that he didn’t have to go back to that school, he’s been getting better. It’s a slow process, and sometimes it feels like two steps forward, seventeen steps back, but we’re getting there. We celebrate the little milestones along the way: A week without nightmares. Two weeks without a panic attack. Talking to a shopkeeper. Attending social activities by himself.

Our Homeschool Emblem

Our Homeschool Emblem

And on Monday we start our next grand adventure.

For the next six months (at least) I will be homeschooling him. It’s not something I expected to be doing, and I am heartbroken about the events that brought us to this point, but I’m excited for the future. And that, my friends, is the lesson I hope Master Nine takes away from this. Not that bullies can’t be beaten, or that running away is the solution, but that all hard times come to an end, and the future shines bright.

 

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Conversations with Children: The Wonders of Research

Me and The Boy

Both my boys are somewhat enamoured with the music of Jurassic Joe. You’ve probably never heard of him. If you’ve got young children, that’s a real shame because his music is all about dinosaurs, and it’s equal parts fun and informative.

Jurassic Joe is the reason Big Brother can tell you the difference between a T-Rex and a Giganatosaurus.

So we were listening to “the dinosaur music” in the car the other day when Big Brother pipes up, “I think Jurassic Joe must have been alive when the dinosaurs were.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because he knows so much about them.”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t think he was alive back then. But I bet he did a lot of research.”

“Research? What’s research?”

Only one of my favourite things in the world… I thought, and wondered how the word had never come up in conversation before. “Research is when you come across a topic or an idea that you find interesting, so you read about it and talk to people about it and find all sorts of information about it. Research is searching for information so you can learn about something.”

“Wow,” said Big Brother. “That sounds awesome. That’s the best thing ever!”

“It is! Mummy loves researching things.”

“Can I research something?”

And a previous conversation re-played itself in my head. A conversation from the day before when Big Brother explained to me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t need to go to school anymore, because he already knew everything that happened there.

“Yes,” I said. “You can research whatever you’d like. Whatever you’re interested in. Research is one of the best ways to learn anything, and you can do it your whole life. In fact, research is one of the reasons you go to school.”

“It is?”

“It is. At school, you’ll learn about a lot of different things so you can find out what interests you and what you’d like to research. Plus, they’ll teach you how to do research.”

“Really?” His eyes were wide.

“Really.”

He was silent for a few moments. Thinking. Then he piped up, “I want to research buildings! And remember how you bought me that colouring book with buildings from all over the world? Well, I can use that to start researching buildings. And the whole world. And I’m going to research the whole world. And sea dragons!”

“That sounds great,” I said.

Another minute of silence. I could hear the cogs in his mind whirring, processing, wondering, dreaming.

“What am I learned to research at school right now?” he asked suddenly.

“Well, you know how you want to research buildings?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“One of the first ways to learn about buildings is to build them with blocks. That way you learn how to make buildings stable, and how to make buildings look good.”

His whole face lit up. “And I know how to build buildings really, really wellI’m great at building with blocks! Wow! I’ve already learned Level One research on buildings!”

I smiled, but didn’t have time to reply before he was off again.

“And do you know what Level Two research on buildings is?”

“What?”

“Drawing them! And I’m really good at drawing buildings! So I’ve already done Level One and Level Two research on buildings! I wonder what Level Three research on buildings is?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Wow,” he said. “I love research.”

“Me too, Sweetheart. Me too.”

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To This Day: A Video on Bullying

When I was in school, I was bullied.

I was taunted and teased and called names.

I was pushed and shoved.

They splashed water on my skirt and told everyone I peed myself.

They sat behind me and threw things at me in every. single. class.

For a year.

“Just ignore them and they’ll go away.”

But they didn’t.

Sometimes they’d pretend to be my friend. Just for a little while. They’d sit beside me, and laugh, and talk, and tell me they were sorry they’d been so mean. Sorry they’d call me names, it was just… They’d look me in the eye. It was just… I’d be much more popular if I’d only slit my wrists. Or stop breathing. Or just hurry up and die.

They’d laugh when they went back to their real friends. Laughter. A sound that could shatter my soul at a hundred paces. And I’d just sit there where they left me. Silently. Holding back the tears and wishing it didn’t hurt and I hadn’t believed just a little bit for just a second just believed that they really did want to be my friend. Wishing I didn’t feel betrayed all over again. Wishing. Wishing I couldn’t feel anything. And thinking that maybe just maybe they were right. Maybe just maybe I’d be better off dead.

“Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.”

Tell me again how words will never hurt me.

The words are still there. Way down beneath the surface of my smile. Mostly, they’re still. Silent. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they stab and poke at me from the inside of my heart. Nerd. Loser. Square. Ugly. Four eyes. Freak. Goat. Nobody will love you. You should just die. Don’t touch her, she’s disgusting.Ugly. Nerd. Wrong clothes. Wrong hair. Wrong words. Wrongwrongwrong. Hatehatehate.

But it’s not just me.

Shane Koyczan was also bullied when he was in school.

He made a video.

It’s like he put a stethoscope to my heart and made a movie of my pain. And then he added hope and a happy ending.

Watch this. Please.

Were you bullied at school?

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Mostly Random Musings

I’ve been a bad blogger. It’s been… I don’t even know how long since my last post. A week? Probably. Between getting ready for school to start, dealing with extreme weather situations, and coping with some other person issues, blogging hasn’t been on the forefront of my brain. And now that I’m here, I have so many things I want to say… and none of them are worth a whole post. So please excuse me while I share some random thoughts that have occurred to me over the last seven days.

  • Two years ago, we had the flood of the century rip through most of Queensland and leave hundreds of people homeless and possessionless. After much hard work, and the generosity of the community, most of those people managed to rebuild their lives. Last weekend, we had another flood. In some areas of Queensland, it was worse than others. Through Brisbane and the immediate surrounds, not so much. Still, many of the same people again found their homes underwater. My heart goes out to everyone who lost possessions, homes, and, most of all, loved ones over the last week. 
  • What is it about crazy weather that brings out the stupid in people? Seriously, who thought this was a good idea???
  • We were lucky and avoided any real difficulties in the flooding, wind, torrential rain, and tornado-laden storm. The worst damage we sustained was a couple of fallen trees in the back yard. And the first day of school for the year was cancelled due to a lack of power.
  • Big Brother cried when he found out. Literally burst into tears.
  • It was terrible to see him so upset and disappointed, but I have to admit to feeling secretly pleased that he loves his school and teachers so much that the thought of missing a single day brings him to tears. Is that wrong of me?
  • Meanwhile, the newest member of our family — Buddy the dog — has been settling in well. He’s cute and smart and loves the kids so much. Well… Okay, he is smart. Honest. Except for one little thing. He’s developed the habit of jumping up and sitting on our outdoor chairs. Like this:
  • 130130 - Buddy (1)
  • What’s so “not smart” about that, you ask? Well, while he’s happy to climb up on to the chair, he can’t get down. He just sits there and whines and barks for someone to rescue him.
  • Sometimes I get home and find him stuck on the chair, and I have no idea how long he’s been there. Ten minutes? Four hours? Who knows. You’d think he’d stop climbing up there, but no….
  • I’ve had to start laying the chairs on their sides at night, because there’s only so many times you can go rescue a puppy at 2:00am before you decide that something has to change.
  • And speaking of change, do you remember me talking back in December about scheduling time for creativity every evening? Well, it’s still happening. And it’s still working. Stay tuned next month for a post where I’ll talk about exactly how well it’s worked for me in the month of January.
  • Here’s a sneak peek: Even I was surprised by how successful it’s been.
  • And speaking of creative time, I’ve got about five minutes before it starts.
  • Peace out.

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The Last Day of School

Today was Big Brother’s last day of school for the year. Amazingly, it’s summer holidays. And I find myself asking: How did this happen? Where did the year go?

First and Last Day of School 2012

Big Brother on the first and last day of school.

It’s hard to believe my boy will be at school full-time next year. Already. It feels like only yesterday I was dropping him off for his first day, wondering whether he was going to be happy or sad, wondering whether he’d cry and latch on to me or if he’d walk away without a backward glance. And here we are at the end of the year, with him chattering on excitedly about everything he’s going to do next year and how much he’s going to look after the little kids.

In many ways, he’s still the same little boy he was at the start of the year. I feel like he hasn’t changed at all.

But he has.

He’s more confident. He’s more imaginative. He’s more inclined to do craft and tell stories and sing songs. He’s more eager to help around the house, and to ask if he can do jobs for me.

He’s more grown up.

At the end of year Festival this morning, we were given a bundle of his drawings, paintings, and craft work that he did throughout the year. (The teachers hold on to it rather than sending it home piecemeal.) We sat down as a family and looked through his pictures, starting with the ones he did in February and working through to the more complicated pictures done over the last couple of months. The progression is striking.

And then there’s the knitted turtle he made — he did the finger-knitting and his teacher attached it to the turtle shaped body. And the beautiful sewing project — he did all the stitching on a lovely little heart-shaped pillow. He’s so very, very proud of them. And I’m so very, very proud of him.

121206 - Tristan's Artwork

Do you get all gushy at the end of a school year, or is it just me?

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A Year of Dance: A Story of Knowing When to Quit (And When to Change Course)

My Little Dancer - Feb 2012My eldest son, affectionately known as Big Brother, started learning dance at the beginning of this year. He’d wanted to learn ballet since he was about two years old, and quickly grew enamoured with jazz after watching a couple of episodes of So You Think You Can Dance?. So in early February, we signed him up to a dance school. I blogged about it, told everyone I knew about Big Brother’s dancing progress, and generally enjoyed seeing him happy.

The year has not been without its dramas. There have been times I’ve wondered if I’ve done the right thing; times Big Brother has wanted to stop dancing. In August I wrote about his struggles with a girl in his class who kept hitting him, and another girl telling him that boys aren’t allowed to do ballet. But we persevered and overcome those obstacles.

Things settled down. For a while.

In September, Big Brother started dragging his feet on Saturday mornings. He’d ask, “Can I skip dance class this week?” He’d say, “I’m very tired this week. Maybe we should stay home instead of going to dance class.”

Every week got to be more and more of a drama to get him to leave the house. I’d be just about carrying him to the car to get him there in time. We’d have showdown after showdown — he didn’t want to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush his teeth, etc etc. It was a struggle. And when I mentioned the end of year concert, he’d fight me all the harder.

The thing is, throughout all of the dramas during the year, he’d kept dancing at home. He’d randomly put on his ballet shoes and do little dances. He’d do leg stretching exercises and forward rolls and practice tapping. And even while he was fighting me over going to dance class, he still wanted to dance at home.

I persevered and forced him to go. It was a hard decision to make — this parenting gig doesn’t come with an instruction manual. But I thought it was better for him to learn to see things through, even when they’re hard, than it was to let him quit something halfway through. Besides, as much as he hated going to dance class, he was always in a good mood when I picked him up.

Until he wasn’t.

It was early October when it happened. I picked him up from dance class and asked him the same thing I did every week: “Did you have a good time?”

He started to say yes. He started to nod. And then he changed his mind. He shook his head and his little lip quivered and he said, “No. I didn’t.” And then he started to cry.

My heart broke. It’s one thing to teach your five-year-old to persevere with their commitments, it’s quite another to watch him break into tears after enduring an hour of that commitment.

Once he’d calmed down and we were in the car, I asked him what had happened. “I don’t want to go to dance class anymore,” he said.

I couldn’t find it in my heart to argue with him; to make him keep going. He was so upset, so fragile and vulnerable in that moment. But…

…but he loved to dance.

“Okay,” I said carefully. “I understand you don’t want to go back to that dance class. If you don’t want to go back, you don’t have to.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Really. But do you still like dancing?”

He gave me a suspicious look. “Ye-es…”

“Well, would you like to try a different dance class?”

He thought about that for a minute. “With a different teacher?”

“Yes.”

“And different dances?”

“Yes.”

“Because I can’t do the finale dance.” And then he started to cry again.

Over the next few days, the story came out. He told me the things that had been happening at dance class for months — things he’d never mentioned to me before because he didn’t want me to be upset, and because he didn’t want to get in trouble. He told me about how, when he cried because he couldn’t do something his teacher told him to go sit in a chair by himself. He told me about how his teacher didn’t talk to him directly, just talked to the girls. He told me that he didn’t know how to do the finale dance and when he made a mistake his teacher told him to “stop being a baby a just do it.”

I was mortified. Horrified. At myself, as much as anything, for forcing him to go through that experience week after week. So I apologised to him, and I sympathised with him, and I cuddled him and we made a deal. He promised that he wouldn’t keep things secret from me if someone did or said something that made him feel bad or sad, and I promised that I wouldn’t get angry at him if that happened. (Not that I would!)

And then we looked for a new dance school.

We found a great new school not far from the old one. Yes, it’s more expensive. But you know what? You can’t put a price on your child’s passion and enjoyment. This school has a 50 year history, classes for ages 3 all the way through to a full college-degree in dance. Big Brother gets individual half-hour lessons in ballet, tap & jazz, and song & dance (where he learns to sing into a microphone and do dance routines). Next year, his classes are 45 minutes each and he gets to learn acrobatics as well. There are lots of boys at the school (including a couple in his class), and the dance routines are set up with both boys and girls in mind. And do you know the best bit?

He’s happy.

My Happy Dancer

 

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The Value of Regret

Regret has a bad name these days.

Sometimes it feels like you can’t go five minutes without seeing a motivational meme decrying regret as the greatest of all possible mistakes.

Live with no regrets!

Never regret your past, it made you who you are in the present!

Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted!

Somehow, we’ve got the idea that regret is a bad thing. There’s a strange idea out there that a regret is something you would change, if given the chance. That by regretting something, you’re admitting that you wish you (and your life) were different.

But, hang on. Is that what regret is really about? Let me grab my handy Macquarie Dictionary and have a look.

Regret: -gretted, -gretting.

  1. to feel sorry about (anything disappointing, unpleasant, etc.)
  2. to think of with a sense of loss; to regret one’s vanished youth
  3. a sense of loss, disappointment, dissatisfaction, etc.
  4. the feeling of being sorry for some fault, act, omission, etc. of one’s own.
  5. (plural) feelings of sorrow over what is lost, gone, done, etc.
  6. a polite and formal expression of regretful feelings

In that defiintion, there is absolutely no indication that regret is based on the desire to change your past actions. Rather, regret is a feeling associated with sadness, sorrow, disappointment, and loss. It’s a feeling engendered by taking responsibility for doing or saying something about which you later feel sorry.

Saying that you want to live life with no regrets is like saying you never want to feel sorry for anything; that you’ll never look back on a situation with a sense of loss or disappointment.

We all have regrets. Some are big and some are small. Some are things we wish we could change. Some are things we wouldn’t change for the world — although we feel sorry for the effect they had on other people. Having regrets is normal. Having regrets is good.

Do you know the value of regret?

Regret teaches us what not to do. If we didn’t feel regret — if we never felt sorry for our actions — then we’d keep doing the same things, and making the same mistakes, over and over again.

Regrets teach us how to be the person we want to be.

break by Anonymous -

When I was ten years old, I had a fling with a boy named Stephen. It was pretty hardcore.

  • On Wednesday, I told my friends to ask his friends to ask him if he wanted to go out with me.
  • On Thursday, he told his friends to tell my friends to tell me that the answer was yes.
  • On Friday, we smiled at each other across the classroom.
  • On Saturday and Sunday I doodled our names together inside love hearts, and practiced signing my name with his surname.
  • On Monday, we sat across from each other at lunch and avoided making eye contact.
  • On Tuesday, he told me I was dumped.

Like I said, hardcore.

A week later, I found out Stephen was seeing one of my friends. They were spotted holding hands after school. I was furious. Clearly, he needed to be taught a lesson.

Twice a year, the school held a variety concert. Anyone could nominate themselves and their friends to do a performance in front of the school. And every concert, Stephen sang Summer Holiday to public acclaim. It was very much his song. He was famous for it. (Within the school, anyway.) So, I decided, that should be the means to get public revenge on him for breaking my ten-year-old heart.

I signed up to sing in the concert as well. But not just any song. Oh, no. I signed up to sing Summer Holiday. First. Ha! That would teach him!

It didn’t take me long to regret that decision. In fact, I regretted it the moment I walked on stage, in front of hundreds of students, teachers and parents, and realised one important thing.

I didn’t know the words.

break by Anonymous -

Would I go back and change what I did? Maybe. Or maybe not. Because I learned a couple of valuable things from that experience.

  1. Revenge is a fool’s game, much more likely to make an idiot out of me than you. Don’t do it.
  2. At the very least, don’t try to get revenge on by competing with someone in the arena where they’re strongest!

That’s a true story. Although it’s clearly not the biggest regret of my life, it illustrates my point: Don’t be afraid of regret.

Regret is not a bad thing. Sure, dwelling on your regrets will get you nowhere. But neither will dwelling on your successes. So stop dwelling and start living. Accept your regrets, embrace them, and learn from them. Just don’t expect them to disappear.

And now I’ll leave you with a quote from Katherine Hepburn:

I have many regrets, and I’m sure everyone does. The stupid things you do, you regret… if you have any sense, and if you don’t regret them, maybe you’re stupid.

How do you feel about regret? Do you have a funny regret you’d like to share?

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