The Serenity Prayer and Parenting

prayingThis is a well-known version of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Let me make my points through six questions:

1. Are you suggesting that one need be religious to be a good parent?

No, I’m not suggesting that. While practicing a religion is correlated with a wide array of good health outcomes, one can be an atheist and still benefit from adhering to the psychological principle imbued within this prayer.

2. What is the psychological principle?

Want to burn a person out? The formula is simple: give that person a sense of responsibility for an important outcome; then make sure s/he doesn’t have the power to achieve it. As the importance of the outcome rises, and control goes down, burnout rises. Sounds silly for someone to allow himself or herself to fall prey to this doesn’t it? Yet, we cooperate with this sort of an agenda all the time. We do this in our vocations (e.g., serving more people with fewer resources) and in our personal lives (e.g., trying to get another human to stop a self-destructive habit). There’s a reason why so many recovery programs lean heavily on this prayer.

3. How is this related to parenting?

As I’ve routinely noted in this blog, we parents love our kids so much it makes black mom with kids, white backgroundus crazy people. When our kids hurt we hurt worse. We also are very focused on procuring the best outcomes for our kids. This great love of ours, in combination with our mighty concern for our kids’ outcomes, can cause us to try to control things that are either outside of our control or which would be better left to the control of our kids or those serving them (e.g., teachers, coaches), especially as they age.

4. What are some signs that a parent might be trying to control things not within his or her control?

Tension and frustration are often experienced. Of course, experiences of tension and frustration are not exclusive to these moments. But, if I’m trying to control things not within my control, I can get myself pretty worked up. My kids will also either tremble in my wake or storm the gates of my authority. Others trying to serve my kids will also often manifest some combination of finding me odd, trying to avoid me, or joining the charging of the gates.

5. How do you distinguish between not trying to control uncontrollable things and disengagement or laziness?

The prayer indicates that this can be tricky, which is why there is the request for wisdom. For my part, I find that those parents who are at risk to be over controlling don’t often have it within them to be disengaged or lazy.

spiritual man As a professor, I see some students who over study. Sometimes this causes them to fret needlessly. As I try to get them to throttle back a little, I’ll say things like “y’know, someone like you is never going to just dial it in. You may burn out but you’re never going to rust out.” I think it’s the same thing with we parents. There are those of us who are disposed towards micromanaging (the burn out crowd) and those of us who are disposed to dialing it in (the rust out crowd). (By the way, does the rust out crowd even read parenting blogs?). So, if you’re in the former group, I don’t really think you have to worry too much about being disengaged and lazy when it comes to parenting. It’s just not in ya 😉

6. Any closing advice?

Just ask yourself if this thing you’re fretting over is really within your control. And, if it is, might it better to relinquish it to someone else? If the control is yours and it’s best to have at it, go forth and do well young lady/man! If it isn’t, try letting go. In my experience, if you let go of something that warrants it, there’s often an  internal confirmation you feel that you’re doing the right thing; this may or may not be accompanied with a feeling of peace (as your child’s outcome is still at issue), but it’ll often feel, somehow, someway, like it’s the right thing to do (and I speak as someone who owns a t-shirt that says “micromanager”).


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.

    I love this. So wise and also written with such understanding and humility. Thanks for the helpful thoughts!Marianne Marianne Herzog, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist (PA, NJ) 555 Andorra Glen Court, Suite 4 Lafayette Hill, PA 19444 610-825-5774 “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”(author unknown)

    “Psychological News You Can Use”–sign up for Pennsylvania Psychological Association’s free e-newsletter at:

    • Thank you so much for the kind words. And, I encourage readers to consider signing up for the free PPA newsletter. I know this newsletter well, having contributed to it myself multiple times. It is a high quality offering, for free.

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