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A Lesson in Deciphering Your Kids' Emojis and Texts

The digital icons are becoming the way to communicate

My millennial daughter punctuated her text message using three emojis with alien faces. I texted her back, "Are u saying I am strange?"

Turns out she'd actually sent smiley faces, but my phone's old operating system had somehow changed those grins to aliens.

Millennials Texting Parents Using Emojis and Acronyms

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Millennials use emojis and acronyms to text parents.

Since surfacing in the 1990s, as shorthand for expressing thoughts and feelings, emojis have become part of our texting vocabulary. Many of us stick to basics such as the "crying tears of joy" face, so popular that this emoji was named the 2015 word of the year by Oxford University Press. Everyone from the White House to a crowdsourced version of Moby Dick have embraced emojis.

Still, there's often a generation gap in translation. What exactly did your adult daughter mean by the dancing girls or your son by the monkey covering its eyes?

Millennials themselves admit to some confusion with meanings. Writer Alice Robb recalled an emoji-only text conversation with a friend who was moving. "This exchange might have been heartfelt. It could have been ironic. I'm still not really sure. It's possible that this friend and I are particularly emotionally stunted, but I put at least part of the blame on emoji: They allowed us to communicate without saying anything, saving us from spelling out any actual sentiments."

Beyond emojis, acronyms that our kids text can also leave us clueless. We all know that LOL means "laugh out loud," but what about FOMO? The mystery of that acronym was shown on the Showtime TV series The Affair in a scene that featured a couple having drinks at their alma-mater college bar. Helen grabs Noah's smartphone to see who keeps texting him. It's from a young friend who complains of "FOMO."

Puzzled, tipsy Helen stands up and yells in the bar, "Hey, millennials, what does FOMO mean?" The young crowd yells in reply, "fear of missing out." That's millennial-speak for the social media-induced feeling that everyone but you is out having a good time.

In our ongoing effort to bridge the generation gap, we conducted an informal survey of New York University graduate students and asked them to list their favorite acronyms and emojis to help parents understand what their kids are saying:

ikr: I know right

smh: shaking my head

* brb: be right back

tbc: to be continued

tbh: to be honest

sb: Starbucks

jk: just kidding

tmi: too much information

atm: at the moment

yolo: you only live once

bae: before anyone else (for girlfriend, boyfriend)

k: OK

nsfw: not safe for work, in this case meaning we omitted those with four-letter words

The students' most-used emojis included the classics: thumbs-up, crying with laughter, blowing a kiss, monkey covering its eyes, embarrassed face, kissy face, a queen. Two that stymied us were the big-eyed octopus, described as "a symbol of endearing awkwardness," and the purple heart, favored by fashionistas instead of the typical red heart.

Perhaps one way to respond to a puzzling text is with one of the newest emojis — the pondering, chin-scratching face.

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.