The 11-year-old unwrapped his first cell phone on Christmas morning, and the first message he sent on it was as clear as it was unintentional: Mom outranks Dad when it comes to affection.
He didn’t know he was sending any message at all. He was just getting the thing set up.
I showed him where to enter phone numbers and he started typing the name of his first contact: M, O, M, purple heart emoji. Awesome, his screen will light up with a heart next to “Mom” every time she calls or texts — mother’s love right there with every message!
He added her phone number, saved the contact and moved on to me.
I peeked over his shoulder to see which emoji he’d dress up my messages with. The tent to remind him of our good times in the woods? The burrito because he aspires to make them as well as I do?
Nope, nothing. When I text him, his phone alerts him with a no-nonsense D-A-D.
I should have expected it. He’s associated the women in our family with warmth and love since he first started speaking.
The house where the boy lives with both parents and his little brother wasn’t “our house” to him, it was “Mom’s house.” Even Grandpa Ron got stripped of his name to give Grandma Jan more room in his heart. The poor guy is known as Grandpa Jan to this day.
That’s not to say the boy and I don’t get along great. He’s full of conversation when we’re driving, and he hollers at me with excitement to watch a replay of a good move in his football video game or to see a new trick he taught the dog.
But Mom gets more of the affection while I get a bigger share of the nuts-and-bolts of helping him grow toward adulthood — learning to fix a bike, figuring out how to tweak a recipe when he’s missing a key ingredient.
I got a good reminder of my standing over the summer, when I took 10 days off work to help with his new Boy Scout troop at summer camp. For nine days, I watched the boy play ball, swim and master new skills with his friends.
Mostly from afar.
Unless he needed an adult to sign out the camp’s ball for a game, he didn’t have a lot of use for his old man. But you can’t begrudge a kid for spending all day with his friends when there’s so much fun to be had.
I knew I was watching the very beginning of his flight from the nest. That’s what his mom and I had been helping him toward from the start, though, and I’d already stored away plenty of memories of the best father-son time a dad could ask for.
It was the second stage of that flight that got him the cell phone. He’s been riding his bike all over town lately, and I got tired of driving around to find him when we needed him back home, a problem the phone would solve nicely.
Even as he’s stretching his wings, though, he still makes time to share tales of his adventures with Mom and Dad.
On day 10 of summer camp, after we’d dropped off the last of the scouts who rode back to town with us, he bubbled over with stories it sounded like he’d been saving up to share with me. And even though I didn’t get an icon of endearment next to my name in his phone book, I still get included in the group texts with his cousin, uncles and mother.
So let Mom have the heart. That’s fine. I still have his love.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.