Serenity Now: A Prayer for Parents

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.
— The Serenity Prayer

The last time I saw my therapist, he gave me an assignment.  We’d already talked about family and life, and family life, when he turned toward his calendar in a way that I knew meant: “Time’s up”.  So we scheduled another appointment.  And then as I got up to leave, he said to me, like a priest assigning Hail Mary’s after confession,

“You should try praying the Serenity Prayer”.

This 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,” as I opened the driver-side door.

“Grant me the courage to change the things I can,” as I buckled my seat belt.

“And the wisdom to know the difference.”  I started the engine and looked both ways.

And then, with hands on the steering wheel of a car under my control, I pulled out of a safe parking spot and into a world I cannot control.

… … …

Over the next weeks, I reflected on why the Serenity Prayer so succinctly captures the inner life.  This short prayer spends its first two sentences pulling itself apart: “Just accept it!” —no: “Work to change it!”.  After its tug-o-war of competing advice, it ends by simply shrugging its shoulders as if to say, “I don’t know, just pick one.”  Thanks a lot. 

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.
— The Serenity Prayer

 

After parenting for almost two dozen years, I’ve come to see the Serenity Prayer as a perfect sound-prayer-track for the two halves of raising kids into adulthood: the Grant me the courage to change the things I can bit plays well for the first dozen years, followed by a loooooong dozen of Help me accept the things I cannot change.

We can direct everything in our younger kids lives – what they eat (whether they get dessert), who they play with, screen time — you name it, we call the shots.  We intervene with their teachers and coaches, we plan their vacations, we guide their media selections.  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 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 look back at the good old days when we could still use our arms to pick them up, little legs air-running in protest, strap them into the carseat and go home.  

Our kids grow up faster than the earth circles the sun – or so it seems, maybe more like Saturn, whose orbit takes 29 years.  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 walk across the makeshift 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 through the high school stadium’s graduation with Hawaiian flowers around their neck and 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. 

… … …

joe-liu-fairride-unsplash

… … …

Well, they may be flying free, but we’re still paying for the gas. Depending on our agreement, a young adult is somewhere on the contractual spectrum between total autonomy and complete dependence. 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 that letting go 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 often to accept the things I cannot change

I’ve received some good advice from the professional adults in my kids’ lives, and despite what it cost me, I’ll pass it along for free: we need to do less. Let them do more.  For instance, let procrastination happen — like all-the-way-happen — and they’ll soon find out what comes of that.  If we keep stepping in to remind, nag, or do it for them, what will they learn? 

But we just want them to be OK, and that “OK” can’t take a chance on homework being late. Plus, to stand there and watch as they fail is an emotion so uncomfortable for me, that I must step in and fix it right away.

Love and control can become inextricably entwined like summer green beans stapled up to wire mesh. Yes, the beans have “grown up” — but what happens when the supporting wire is removed?

… … …

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.  What an opportunity missed to listen to what was behind 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.  But 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.

jeremy-yap-prayer-hands-unsplash
Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

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. 

It’s almost eery how prayer can devolve into control, like a recipe prescribing a soup, when the whole thing was invented as a way to acknowledge God’s providence over things “too lofty for me to understand.” A modern cook goes to the store knowing exactly what to buy because the recipe told them so; an ancient cook went to the farmer’s market to buy what’s in season and then decide, based on what they were given, what soup to make. 

These are the kids I was given, how can I best love them?

What if I accepted what is? 

Breathe in. 

What if, with each exhale, I let go of a tiny piece of what I expected? 

Breathe out.

What if each inhale included its own what if? — as a florist considers adding an unexpected flower to the bouquet.

Breathe in. 

And just maybe, at some moment, the morning light might shine through the window panes 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.

Breathe out. 

And that’s exactly what’s happening.  I’m seeing a deeper beauty watching three young adults in the becoming.  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’ve overcome issues seemingly unique to them, journeys they thought they were walking alone but are walking forward nonetheless. 

… … …

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 Mary’s.  “Just last week”, he said, nodding toward an imaginary patient on the couch, he’d told an actual priest to say 5 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 who they are?  But that is in fact his exact business, and a service I desperately need.  I won’t pay a buck on the app store, but somehow I’ll pay hundreds for someone to tell me directly:  be who you are

Why would I need to pay someone, week after week, to help me uncover and become the person I was born as? How do so many expectations get layered over us that we spend our adulting years trying to peel them off in the search for our original selves?

… … …

Maybe I just want to know I’ll be OK.

And time and again, when someone is talking about my kids, the most comforting words to hear are, “They’re going to be OK.” Perhaps that’s because my greatest worry as a parent is that they won’t be OK, whatever that means. But after weathering enough broken expectations in my own life, not to mention in my kids’ lives, I’ve got a little secret to share from the view of a parent who has lost the option of feeling in control:  OK can be redefined. Beauty abounds in acceptance.

When whatever I thought OK looked like didn’t come to pass, I had to face a new reality. And then eventually, with some breathing, some open-hand Serenity praying, and a little humor, I opened my eyes and thought, “Oh, this is OK.”

Which soon became, “We’re alright, we can live in this.” 

Which then turned into, “I’m so glad we’re not that other kind of OK, how boring.”

(And only after that, could I see how much that other kind of OK was really about what you all thought about me.) 

Listen, maybe when you started on this parenting road, you thought being OK meant your kids would follow the prescribed path of high school honors, excellence in athletics, smooth college years, no problems with money or dating or alcohol, then marrying, happily ever after in the church you grew up in.

And fine, that might happen for you.  (But then your Google search for other “Awesome Kick-Ass Parents” wouldn’t have led you to this page anyway.)

But there is another way.  Another OK, you might say.

Beauty abounds in acceptance.

Don’t misunderstand, when it comes to parenting I still frequently panic, freak out and try 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 anyway, now I have the Serenity Prayer.

So if you’re in the first twelve years of parenting, fine — Grant me the courage to change the things I can.

But if you’re in the second dozen or beyond, join me in repeating this phrase: Help me accept the things I cannot change.

And in between, and always, ask for the wisdom to know the difference.

♦ weekendswell ♦

Please help my social-media awkwardness by sharing meaningful posts on your social networks. For more on parenting teenagers and letting-go moments like graduations, see Walking the Sidewalk, or to read more about honesty in families, see Who You Are. ♥

Photo Credits:

Featured Image: Photo by ckturistando on Unsplash
Open Hands:  Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash
Fair Ride:Photo by Joe LIU on Unsplash

10 Replies to “Serenity Now: A Prayer for Parents”

  1. I love this one, Dan! The fledgling period of parenting is difficult. And there is always more that you can’t change than there is that you can ! Helping kids become who they were born to be is tricky.

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  2. I am in Agreement with your experience of parenting, especially the way you wish you had handled high school church going. Shared to FB and hoping you get parents will read. Thank you:)

    Like

  3. Thank you Dan for sharing your heart. I hear your voice as I read and I always find your words to be a construction of something good.

    Flowers in our bouquet of humanity. Awesome challenge. My uncle used to say a weed is just a plant out of place….from our perspective.

    Also…y’all check out Oldchapcharity on IG Growing perspectives for now.
    Thank you!
    Heather

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      1. Thank you for this wisdom, Dan. I hope even though I am in the first dozen years I can begin to practice this letting go…although I fear I have *no idea* a fraction of what that really means, ha! Kids sure have a profound way of growing us – already true for me and I’m sure I have a lot more (painful but good) growing to do.

        Also, I do think of you guys as “Awesome Kick-Ass Parents.” Thanks for sharing what you have learned/ are learning along the way.

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      2. I agree completely – the growth is profound, we get to revisit our own childhood through watching our kids and then they turn and reflect our own adulthood to us in ways we didn’t see before. You guys are surely on the right track too so keep it up! thanks for reading, Dan

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  4. Thanks Dan for your Amazing insights. I wish I had read these years ago when my own kids were growing into the amazing adults they have become, maybe I could have made that journey a little easier for them.

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