The last time I saw Richard, he gave me an assignment. I’d been on his couch confessing just how little control I have as my kids become young adults, when he turned toward his calendar as if to say, “Time’s up.” And then, like a priest assigning Hail Marys after confession, he said, “You should try praying the Serenity Prayer.”
It surprised me. This therapist who advertises no religion—who in fact has helped me unwind some of my religion in order to find my humanity again—was suggesting I pray?
I googled the Serenity Prayer as I walked to my car:
Help me accept the things I cannot change
Grant me the courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Over the next weeks, I reflected on why the Serenity Prayer so succinctly captures the inner parenting life. The short prayer starts by pulling itself apart: Just accept it!—no, Work to change it! The opening tug-o-war abruptly ends with a shrug of the shoulders as if to say, I don’t know, pick one.
Thanks a lot.
But as my kids have approached and now entered young adulthood, I’ve come to see the Serenity Prayer not as a contradiction but as a lifeline for the two halves of parenting: the “Grant me the courage to change the things I can” bit plays well for the first dozen years, followed by a dozens of, “Help me accept the things I cannot change.”
Help me accept the things I cannot change.
We can direct everything in our younger kids’ lives—whether they get dessert, who they play with, screen time; we intervene with their teachers and coaches, we plan their vacations, we guide their media selections. You name it—we call the shots. We’re “changing the things we can,” we think, as we steep them in our beliefs and causes, walk them to our churches and marches, affirm them with our hugs and kisses.
We are deeply in control, though we don’t truly know it until that control starts to slip away with the onset of teenage and young adult years. It’s only when we’re parked outside their friend’s house at midnight, madly texting “Get out here now!” that we appreciate the days when we could pick them up—little legs air-running in protest—strap them into the car seat and go home. Then we are forced to acknowledge our lack of control more deeply when they go against our established way of life, flounder around our adulting expectations, or take their newfound views to social media in front of their friends and ours. Our once single-identity family tree sprouts branches. Our nightly dreams begin to overflow with brake-pumping, car-off-a-cliff vignettes.
This change happens faster than the earth circles the sun—or so it seems; maybe Saturn’s twenty-nine-year orbit is more accurate. Like the solar system, our children grow up in concentric circles around us, in constant motion, measured in days, months, years, all moving together in a divinely orchestrated dance that makes a parent feel like an inside-lane runner getting lapped by our offspring. We pause on the day they’re born and wonder at their tiny features—an adult in the making—then spend the next twenty years pulling helplessly on the carousel lever to slow their circle. One day as they stride across the junior high graduation stage, we realize their orbit is overtaking us, and just as we look up from adjusting the zoom on that old 35mm camera, they’ve walked directly into the high school stadium, car keys jangling underneath their graduation gown. Like a centrifugal ride at the fair they go faster, tipping ever outward until only a safety belt holds them in. And just as we’re calling out, “Be careful,” they unbuckle and fly free.
Grant me the courage to change the things I can.
Well, they may be flying free, but we’re still paying for their health insurance. A young adult is somewhere on the contractual spectrum between complete dependence and total autonomy. And in many cases, we are right to be firm, keeping “the courage to change things” as long as we can. In these later stages, both the parents and the kid fight for control, and it’s a gradual handoff to be sure.
But as parents, we tend to focus more on their part of the handoff than our own. In such a transfer, our letting go is half of the battle—and may be the only part we can change.
“Grant me the courage to change the things I can,” which, in this stage of parenting, is to “accept the things I cannot change.”
Common lore is that the Serenity Prayer was written for “addiction recovery.” This is a fitting description for those finishing the first dozen years of parenting—as we are essentially in recovery from the addiction of being in control.
Virtually no one prompts us that the time has arrived to start the gradual process of letting go. No one, that is, except our teenage kids. But after the first dozen years we parents are so programmed against any disrespectful talking back that we shut it down. I would, for instance, love to go back to the day my high schooler questioned going to church every Sunday. “Because that’s what we do!” was my answer, and the end of the conversation. I missed a chance to listen for life underneath the question, and, at that age, allow the choice.
Like many, I’ve prayed for my kids over the years, from the time they were small. It’s almost eerie how prayer can devolve into control when the whole thing was invented as a way to acknowledge God’s providence over things “too lofty for me to understand.” Most of my parenting prayers imagined God’s powerful arm, like a Vegas dealer’s dice stick, moving things around the card table of their lives so they’d eventually come out ahead. I sometimes wonder if that was anything more than verbally rehearsing control over both my kids and God.
Grant me the wisdom to know the difference.
But parenting continues, and the second dozen years is inviting me to pray anew—no longer with my prayer hands closed in a fist around all that I want for my kids, but instead with hands flipped over, unclenched, open to the sky, curious to see what life brings along. Teenagers have a way of breaking all expectations, and I can choose which part of the Serenity Prayer to receive that with. What if I unclenched my expectation-hands? Instead of insisting on well-worn paths, I could accept that the world has changed since I was in high school, that faith takes different forms, that my teen is a unique person I can discover and receive.
These are the kids I was given, how can I best love them?
What if, with each exhale, I let go of a tiny piece of what I expected?
What if each inhale included its own what if?—as a florist considers adding an unexpected flower to the bouquet.
And just maybe, at some moment, the morning light might shine through the windowpanes onto the flowers in that family vase, as I stand back with a finger across my pursed lips. And I might just consider it beautiful. I might look at it and decide I like it, precisely because it’s different from all the other vases filled with perfectly expected red roses. Beauty abounds in acceptance.
And that’s exactly what’s happening. I’m seeing a deeper beauty watching my three young adults. And I’m proud to see how life is fitting together for them, in unexpected ways. Where they’ve performed exactly like their peers it’s good, yes, but I find my pride-tears flowing most where they’re working through challenges seemingly unique to them, journeys they thought they were walking alone but are walking forward nonetheless.
Thank you, Richard.
I still panic sometimes when it comes to parenting, trying to control both my kids and our family image. But these young adults won’t have any of it. It’s completely out of my control. And serenity comes from the wisdom to know the difference.
I guess my therapist was onto something. And on my next visit, I told him so. He smiled at my description of him as a priest prescribing Hail Marys. “Just last week,” he said, nodding toward an imaginary patient on the couch, he’d told an actual priest to go say five Our Fathers. He was serious, but then we both laughed: what business does he have telling a Catholic Priest to go pray?
For that matter, what business does he have telling anyone to accept the things they cannot change? But that is in fact his exact business and a service I desperately need.
And a service my kids are now using to unwind my parenting—all paid for by my insurance plan, of course.
Cover image by Patryk Grądys.