A few years ago, when my oldest son was a junior in high school and I still believed parents could actually affect the outcome of the tedious, soul-crushing process known as applying to college, I had lunch with a woman we’ll call Jennifer. I met Jennifer at the urging of a mutual friend, who promised that Jennifer knew all the “secrets” to getting a child into the elite institution of his choice.
Jennifer was once a supersuccessful executive who did one of the countless jobs in banking that I don’t understand. This might explain why I’ve spent a happy career thinking about meatloaf (very hard to photograph) and fitted sheets (very hard to fold without wanting to hurt someone). I suspect my work hasn’t paid off in the same way Jennifer’s did, because she retired young in order to devote her considerable energy to securing Ivy League spots for her children.
When it came time to order lunch, Jennifer went with vegetables. Just vegetables. But I swear that’s not why I stopped listening to her secrets. It was the part when Jennifer explained that she sat with her teenage son every night and kept him on task while he did his homework. My head was nodding and smiling, while behind the scenes the realist in me was facing the fact that I was, and forever shall be, an amateur.
Yes: amateur. From the French word for “a woman who loves to do something even though, according to friends, family and even casual observers, she’s not particularly good at it.” So while some parents approach the task of raising kids like management consultants, wielding spreadsheets with “deltas” and “KPIs,” amateurs are more like garage chemists: we put a bunch of stuff in a test tube and hope nothing blows up.
I’ll admit that lunch with Jennifer precipitated an existential crisis that lasted a good couple of weeks, or long enough for two of my three children to make it clear that they preferred to conduct their lives without my input. Then I gradually went back to my familiar, amateur way of life, rationalizing my behavior with the knowledge that I was still gainfully employed and none of my children had been arrested.
These days, when I’m not closing my middle son’s door so I don’t have to notice whether he’s doing his homework, I’m searching for kindred spirits who validate my way of life. This spring, I discovered just that in the form of David McCullough Jr., the Massachusetts high school English teacher whose viral commencement speech turned book You Are Not Special is one giant amateur’s rallying cry. McCullough’s recommendations include but are not limited to: letting your kids fail, paying for them to build houses in Guatemala only if they really love building houses or really love Guatemala and reading Edith Wharton. Most important: Do not encourage them to think they are–or need to be–special.
In addressing today’s helicopter parents, who are sure their kids are unique and superior–pros in training, as it were–his tone is both compassionate and vaguely scolding. McCullough understands, for example, how a parent’s expectations can zoom into the realm of the spectacular when a child shows a glimmer of special. All it takes is for a bored, channel-flipping teen to pause for a few seconds on a documentary about Chichén Itzá and in his parents’ minds, he is destined to become the pre-eminent Maya archaeologist of his generation, if not of all time.
But as McCullough knows, the corollary to “You are not special” is “Everyone is special.” We all just have to find a passion, to do something for no other reason than because we love it, even if we’re not that good. Yes, that includes photographing meatloaf and folding fitted sheets.
And what about the child whose future prompted my lunch with Jennifer? He just finished his first year of college and is now working on an organic farm in Peru. That might sound suspiciously like building houses in Guatemala, but the trip was his idea, he’s paying for it, and he made all his own travel arrangements. It’s astonishing to his amateur mother, really. I do wonder whether I should have at least helped him plan the trip. But I suppose the reason he was able to pull it off is precisely because I didn’t.
Van Ogtrop is the editor of REAL SIMPLE and author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom.
This appears in the June 02, 2014 issue of TIME.