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Long Distance Parenting 102: The Rules of Engagement

a woman looking at a cell phone
Photo by kaboom pics on pixabay

It took me three-quarters of the academic year, but I finally figured out that my college freshman has particular rules of communication. Naturally, he’s never directly communicated these rules. Like a scientist, I’ve had to form and test my hypothesis until I’ve determined the nuances of the phenomenon.


When he was a high schooler, I knew a lot about his life. We eat together as a family pretty much every night, so we often had time around the dinner table to catch up, using “Pows and Wows” to share the high- and low-lights of our days. He told stories about his classmates and teachers. He came home from a football game and debriefed us on all the band mishaps. We were decently informed.

When he went to college, my single requirement was a weekly phone call. We generally have a FaceTime call every Sunday afternoon, with various members of our family present on our end and often a roommate in the background on his end. On this hour-long call, our son is generally verbose. He gives us a summary of his week and tells us what’s coming up next week. On his trips home over break, he talks and talks on the ride home from the airport and later sits with us on the couch and talks some more.


But in between these visits, via text, there isn’t much of substance. He will not reply to texts such as:

“Just writing to say I love you/am thinking of you/miss you.”

“How was your day/weekend/week?”

“How did your public speaking/music composition/art theory assignment go?”


Just before spring break, I texted, “Looking forward to having you home tomorrow!” ❤️


He replied, “Wow emoji rare sighting.”


Huh. I wonder if he was happy to be coming home? I wonder if it made him feel good that I was happy he was coming home? I guess we’ll never know.


We will, however, predictably receive replies from texts and Marco Polo messages that cover random topics such as:  

A photo of a nearby building being torn down. There are three buildings in our town that are currently being demolished, and he finds this fascinating. (“Guys in hazmat suits!!” I wrote. “Oh boy I love hazmat suits” he replied.)

A music-themed message. (My husband texted, “I just discovered this great new chord: Bsus13,” and received an immediate response.)

I guess I’m a bit thick-skulled, because it took me this long to understand that messages are simply not the way he wants to communicate anything significant. Perhaps he wants to save the good stuff for our calls; for if he shared everything in real time, what would we discuss on Sundays?


After spending years knowing the minutia of his days, we’re at the mercy of his preferences for communication. After daily hugs and exchanges of “I love you,” I have to find ways to connect with him that suit his personality, schedule and preferences (after all, it’s not all about me). 


Recently, after texting a few building demolition photos close together, I asked, "Do you still want to receive these? Or are you over this?"

He replied, "It's the highlight of my day."

Somehow, I doubt this. Thanks to our weekly calls, I know the thriving, socially-fulfilling life he's living at college.

Sometimes I wonder, should I be texting him just to say I love you more often? But you have to know your audience. Speak their love language and all that. For this guy, nothing says “I love you” like mangled metal and crumbled concrete.

A building that is being torn down.


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