Cynthia Tobias and Jean Daly describe how parents can navigate the frustration and challenges of raising strong-willed children. Our guests also explain how couples can get on the same page in their parenting approach. (Part 1 of 2)
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Cynthia Tobias: I can tell you not only from my standpoint, but from hundreds and thousands of strong-willed kids that I've talked to. Raising your voice in anger, it almost never works. It doesn't have a positive effect on us. You can yell and scream, but now you've made yourself irrelevant, because I've already just shut down, going, "Oh, brother. Here we go again." Your calm and firm voice is almost always gonna have a much better effect than your anger.
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John Fuller: Okay now, when you heard that calm voice delivering that advice, did you just wince a little bit maybe? It's so easy to lose our temper when our kids are testing our limits. If you struggle with that, stay tuned. We have some great trusted advice and this is "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and Jim, we just can't seem to talk enough about parenting that strong-willed, aggressive, confrontational child.
Jim Daly: Well, yeah, there's nothin' new under the sun and that child seems to be popping up in everybody's family. So, maybe you're blessed as a parent to have two very compliant children and you should get on your knees tonight and say, "Thank You, Lord." (Laughter) But some of us do have strong-willed children and Cynthia Tobias, just in her voice, you can hear that. I wish I had that temperament that she has and that sound, 'cause both as a schoolteacher and later as a police officer, I mean, she learned some incredible things in how to talk to people and you hear it. Her wisdom is rich.
We're coming back to this topic today, because it's one of the most popular broadcasts of the past year and it's part of our 12-CD set, featuring Kathi Koch about how your child is smart, healthy eating advice with David Meinz, Juli Slattery and Dannah Gresh, their thoughts on the 50 Shades of Grey, which was one of the most popular programs. We have tons of marriage and parenting advice from Shaunti Feldhahn, Kara Durbin, David Clarke, Louis Giglio and Larry Crabb and that was a real powerful program, as well. They're all wrapped up in this set of 12 CDs.
John: Yeah, you can get the CDs or the download of the best "Focus on the Family" programs from 2014 when you call us at 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or you can order right now at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: John, anytime we're talking about the challenges of parenting, I can feel the ears leaning maybe a bit closer to the radio or maybe those joggers who are pushin' the ear buds in just a bit, because based on response, we know this is one of the biggest needs that we all have. And Cynthia Tobias, like I said, is wonderful at bringing that truth. She and my wife Jean joined us to talk about how to parent your strong-willed child as a teen. But Cynthia is an expert also in strong-willed behavior and has authored, You Can't Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded, love that title and it has so much good advice on how to navigate these tricky waters. I think those of you that don't have a strong-willed child will also appreciate this conversation.
John: Well, let's go ahead and hear this Best of 2014 "Focus on the Family" radio program.
Jim: You're a police officer, as well as a teacher and hopefully, a good parent. But that combination has really given you incredible perspective.
Cynthia: Yes, that's the least of it. (Laughter)
John: Not to mention the fact that you, yourself--
Cynthia: Well, yeah.
John: --are admittedly a strong-willed individual.
Cynthia: That's right, absolutely. It takes one to know one and then I have one. My mother prayed that would be so.
Jim: (Laughter) Now you've written his book and we've talked about it. The title is You Can't Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded. If you have a strong-willed child, you know exactly what that title is saying.
Cynthia: That's right.
Jim: And as you said, Cynthia, you were one and I'm not sure as an adult, has that played out in your adult life, as well?
Cynthia: Oh, yes, I'm afraid if you asked my husband, Jack, he would tell you. (Laughter) You don't outgrow it. I think you get much more mature and you learn to back off more than you did before--
Cynthia: --when you were younger. But it never really leaves you.
Jim: It (Laughing) never leaves. You never grow out of (Laughter) the strong-willed persona.
Cynthia: I'm sure that, that's not true with your wife though, as she probably doesn't give you any problem as a strong-willed wife--
Cynthia: --like I give my husband.
Jim: -- well, I think Jean, you would say that you're a strong-willed wife. I don't know that you're … would you say in growing up you were the strong-willed child in your sibling group?
Jean Daly: No and I'm curious, Cynthia, because I am sorry to admit that I am a very strong-willed parent and wife, but I was a compliant child and is that typical?
Cynthia: What birth order--
Jim: … can you grow on …
Cynthia: --were you?
Jean: Five of six. I had--
Jean: --to be compliant. It was survival of the fittest and I was not the fittest. (Laughter)
Jim: But she was definitely the brightest and the most--
Cynthia: The best.
Jim: --beautiful. (Laughter)
John: The best catch.
Cynthia: What a smart man.
Jim: Yeah, no kidding.
Cynthia: Well, that's not unusual, I find a lot of adults who just kind of finally come into their own once they get away from home and realize, because you're valued for certain things and you are kinda surrounded by others that overpower you. So, as a strong-willed person, you just decide [it's] not worth it.
Jim: Let's talk about that million-dollar question that we set up at the top of the program. How does a parent restrain from that anger response and really come down to the firm voice? Because I think in the Christian community particularly, we are very much about the rules. And we're very much about, you know, doing well and doing the right things.
And I think so often we as parents, we go to the anger well because we're frustrated by that strong-willed child and their inability to do what you've asked them to do. Where are we going wrong and how do we get control of that?
Cynthia: Well, and you want to start as early as possible. I mean, just yesterday in the store again, I hear a mother going, "Get over there. Get over there right now. Don't you do that." I mean, what we forget sometimes as parents is, from the very beginning of my life with you as a child, I watch you. I imitate you. I learn how to be an adult through you. However much respect you pay me, however … whatever tone you use with me, that must be okay for me to use it back to you. And that's hard for us to remember, but it's absolutely true. And you can see it mirrored over and over and over again--
Jim: Ooh, that can be--
Cynthia: --in families.
Jim: --tough to really absorb though, Cynthia. What you're saying there is, what you see in the reflection of your child may be your attitude that you've reflected toward them.
Cynthia: Yeah, especially--
Cynthia: --if you're a strong-willed parent, 'cause I've said more than once, oh, I can dish it out, but I can't take it. You know, I forget for a minute and that's when you really need that relationship, you know, what you and Focus, I mean, over and over, that's the foundation of everything—relationship, relationship with Christ, relationship with our families, relationship with the community. The relationship is everything and especially for a strong-willed child, if you don't have a relationship with me that I want to keep, then you don't have any leverage--
Cynthia: --'cause what's the upside?
Jean: Cynthia, we often talk about the negative traits of the strong-willed child, their stubbornness, the arguing, the temper tantrums. But we need to also remember the positive traits they possess and how these perceived negatives really can be channeled into positive things later into life.
Jim: But Jean, I gotta say, you know, with our strong-willed child, it's hard when that stubbornness is coming out and that defiant behavior is coming out, to remember at that point, oh, someday this child will be a leader. (Laughter) I mean, it's tough.
Jean: Absolutely and it is difficult in the heat of the moment.
Cynthia: Oh, absolutely.
Jean: --and especially that stubbornness, I know for me, can feel like disrespect and disobedience.
Cynthia: One of the things that diffused it faster than anything with my strong-willed child and has worked over and over and I mean, this is almost magic--we've talked about this in prior broadcasts--is, you know, the sense of humor or the lightening up and the opportunity to give me as the strong-willed child a small little fire escape, where I could gracefully back off, you know, to say, "Are you tryin' to make me mad?" And I get a chance to say, "No." "Oh, good, 'cause for a minute I thought that you actually wanted that."
And then, see what that does is, that allows me to back off for a minute or to say, "Whoa. Wow, that was a good one. You're the master of a quick comeback. I think you and I both realize that wasn't appropriate and I can't let you get by with that. Love how your mind works though. Boy, if I could just direct that."
I mean, so you're gonna hold me accountable, 'cause I wouldn't respect you if you didn't. But you're … instead of just jumpin' at me right away and say, "You better not say that again." You say, "Whoa, nice try. Are you tryin' to get in trouble?" And Mike would say, "No, is that where I'm goin'?" "Oh, yeah."
And then we smile, you know and you give them just this brief moment of face saving that a strong-willed child has to have, 'cause when we're young, especially and you know, if I'm 13-years-old and I'm a boy, I'm not even thinkin' about what I'm sayin'. You know, what are you thinkin'? I wasn't. I don't have any idea what I'm thinking. (Laughter) So, I just said it and then I can either get in horrible trouble for it or I can have my parents say, "Are you sure that's what you meant to say?" "No, what I actually meant to say was …"
See, and a lot of times, I mean, really like over 50 percent of the time, you will find even the strongest-willed child, back pedal a little and let you back pedal a little and give you the space. But you'll never find that, almost never if you jump right in and go, "Well, you had just better not say … if I catch you sayin' that again … that is totally inappropriate." If you start that way, I have nowhere to go, right? But if you give me a chance to say, "Whoa, are you sure you want to ask the question that way?" And smile.
Jim: That's really good.
Cynthia: Then it really works.
Jean: And Jim, you're good about that.
Jim: Well …
Jean: You are good about diffusing the situation with humor.
Jim: But I think with the parenting personalities, they play a great role in this obviously. And I think for Jean and I, Jean is a very consistent, very black-and-white thinker. You know, her degree's in biochemistry and she's a scientist and we make pancakes on Saturday. She takes one cup of flour, takes a knife over the top of the (Laughter) measuring cup and it's gotta be, I mean, is it down to the gram? (Laughter) I drive her crazy because …
Cynthia: We didn't even need that organization broadcast. (Laughter)
Jim: No! I mean, I just (Laughing) throw the pancake batter in and add enough water to make it consistent--
Cynthia: Close enough.
Jim: --to where you want it. And I'm sure it (Laughing) drives you crazy. But those are some differences that play out in the parenting role and that can really create divisiveness within the relationship between husband and wife--
Cynthia: It is.
Jim: --to where it plays out with the kids and you don't want to take sides. But I think for Jean and I, that is one of the big issues, that she's very good at declaring a call black and white and she, I'm sure looks at me sometimes as boy, that diffusing of the situation, you're kinda weak. (Laughing)
Cynthia: Yeah and …
Jim: Maybe a bit permissive.
Cynthia: Depending on how you do it. Yeah.
Cynthia: And you know, Jack, my husband, he's very non-intuitive. And he tells people, I'm not intuitive and he'll say, "Sometimes you just need to take ahold of either side of my face and look at me and say, 'Jack, this is what I need,' or 'This is what you should do.'" And the way that translates in the parenting process with the strong-willed child, if you're a non-intuitive parent and the sense of humor doesn't come naturally, then the best thing to do and I've talked to thousands of kids and they say this, too. The best thing to do is to say, "Well, you know, I honestly don't know how I'm gonna get through to you in a positive way. I don't know what to do. I need you to tell me what am I supposed to be doing here?" And again, you're not in a weak way saying, "Oh, I really wish I knew and what …" I mean, because then we have to fight out urge to--
Cynthia: --destroy you, because if you're weak and tentative, we don't really want you to live (Laughter), figuratively--
John: Speaking of …
Cynthia: --at least.
Jim: Well, certainly not--
Jim: --control me.
Cynthia: --no, and I mean, I need you to not be weak and tentative, but your openness and transparency with me, even as a younger child, saying, "Look, the bottom line is still the bottom line. I don't apologize for what I'm asking you to do. I think I might need a do-over in how I ask you to do it. And maybe you could help me figure out what I did wrong, 'cause I still need you to get this. I need you to be here. So, you get my respect because that's the bottom line.
But there's a lot to be said for just, you know, the non-intuitive parent saying, "I wish I knew how to do this better. You tell me, how do I get you here? 'Cause always I'm gonna get you here."
Jim: Yeah and that's just an honest statement.
Jim: --they respond well to that.
Cynthia: --the honesty, oh, we respond very well to honesty, much, much better than you trying to do your, you know, your yelling and screaming and threatening and all that. None of that makes any difference.
Jim: Let me go back to make sure we're hearing you correctly, because I think often when you have a strong-willed child, it's a quick flashpoint when they're defying you. You haven't given them the escape hatch like you talked about. How does a parent control that emotion? Because I think again, so often, we as parents, we go from A to Z too quickly and we don't stop and think. Is there a mechanism for us to get those emotions under our own control? What can we do to go, "Okay, don't go there; don't go there?"
Cynthia: Well, you know, I mean here I have to admit there aren't a whole lot of things. One lady gave me a really good idea and she said, when her husband'll say something outrageous to her, because and I had a book for a while called Redefining the Strong-Willed Woman and we had this chapter in there about "nuclear battle," where sometimes if you say something to me, it's just like pushing the nuclear war button. There just isn't any way out of it. It's just not gonna be diffused. We're both gonna die. I'll go first and we're both gonna be destroyed.
So, she said, if he says something really outrageous, I just say, "I'm gonna pretend like you didn't just say that" and then I walk away. And I thought, what a great idea. I've tried that a few times. It doesn't always work, but if you can even muster up the ability to say, "I'm gonna pretend like you didn't just say that" and just walk away and get a little space before we talk, then that, you know, communicates the fact that if I say anything else, I'm gonna regret it.
Jim: You know, I resonate with that, Cynthia, because I think even with our one strong-willed child, when he has been somewhat defiant and hasn't done what I've asked him to do and we've had our little interaction, it's interesting that almost 100 percent of the time in just a few minutes, he comes back to do what he was asked to do. It's almost like guilt has taken over and he's goin', okay, it's reasonable.
Cynthia: But you know why that is, right? It wouldn't happen if you didn't have the relationship. And when you develop that relationship that you've already developed with him and it is especially important during these middle-school years, then he's actually gonna give you grace. I found my son--
Cynthia: --would give me grace at a time when I really did snap and I was just angry and didn't have [control], then he gave me a pass. And because he knows that's not what I always do, so the relationship actually allows you to not be the perfect parent.
John: A lot of wisdom from our guest today on this matter of strong-willed children. I'm John Fuller. Your host on "Focus on the Family" is Jim Daly. We have his wife, Jean here and just heard from our expert in residence here on this subject matter, Cynthia Tobias, who wrote the book, You Can't Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded. And we'll have details about that, a download of this program and some other helps for you as the parent of a strong-willed child, when you stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
John: And Cynthia, just a moment ago you were saying something and my brain went to the, "I'm not takin' the bait." When you don't engage your child, when you say, "Oh, I'm gonna just pretend you didn't say that" and walk away, how many times did your son follow you to keep the argument going? I mean, it feels to me like that happens a lot. They can't stand being shut down effectively when we say, "I'm not gonna argue with you about that."
Cynthia: 'Cause you just took control away from me. Remember those who anger you--
Cynthia: --control you. And so, so I'm sittin' down here angry and wantin' to argue with you and you refuse, I couldn't lock on.
John: So, that's why you're--
Cynthia: That frustrates--
John: --that's why you're--
John: --you're gettin'--
Cynthia: So, I'm comin' back--
John: --kinda nuts over it.
Cynthia: --after you and you--
Cynthia: --and you're sayin', "Look, nice try. As soon as we both calm down and you can speak to me in a calm voice and I can, I'm gonna talk to you. But I can't trust myself and I still don't hear your calm voice. Let's just give it a few minutes."
And so, again, you just don't take the bait, 'cause you'll lose. I have a question for Jean. Do you find, because you've said that Jim's got more of a natural sense of humor and you have maybe a more analytic bent and things are the way they are.
Cynthia: What are the differences in how Trent relates to you and relates to his dad?
Jean: Well, and this is the entire irony behind your book, that those of us who parent strong-willed children with that bony finger pointing in their faces, saying, "You need to do this now," we know it doesn't work. And yet, that's why we need broadcasts like this (Laughter) and books like yours and need to practice, really need to practice and role play, because it doesn't work. And we all know those strong-willed kids just dig in and it escalates and nothing is accomplished. Jim with his humor and with his calm demeanor, our son responds so well to that.
Cynthia: But you're probably like my husband, you get frustrated that--
Cynthia: --it doesn't come naturally.
Cynthia: And that's where we can really offer hope to parents. One of the things I tell in my seminars and with the books, too, is say, you give something three to five years of having to practice it on purpose, but somewhere around the three-year mark after doin' that, it notches in finally. Even for someone non-intuitive, it will notch in. It notches in for you immediately, because you're on the same wave length, but for Jean, it's notching in out of practice.
Jim: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I can almost remember the day that I became calmer about it. And looking back when Trent was probably somewhere around 5 and you know, it's already happening. It certainly happened before (Chuckling) that. I mean, it was whether it was brushing his teeth or washing his hair. I was thinking to myself, why does this thing keep occurring?
And I remember just taking a deep breath almost and backing off and saying, okay; this is it. And we gotta find different ways to connect. And my great concern, Cynthia and again, what I see, which is so common in the Christian community, my desire for those rules to be followed and for the respect to be there, could do great damage to the bond of love that we have. And I just sensed if I lost--
Jim: --that, I may lose everything. And I wanted to make sure and to make--
Cynthia: That's right.
Jim: --a conscious effort to say, "I love you. I don't like what you're doing right now, but you gotta know I love you." In fact, there was one night that it really came out. I had to discipline him and he went into his room. And I went, as I would normally do, I followed him into the room to assure him of my love and to hug him. And he was emotionally very distant. He did not feel it was appropriate.
And I just remember, he wouldn't speak to me. I would ask him a question, "How are you feeling?" And he'd just shake his head no. And I said, "Could you write down for me how you're feeling?" And he shook his head yes. So--
Cynthia: Ah, there you go.
Jim: --I trundled off and got the pen and paper, came back to his bedroom and gave him the pen and paper, which he took. And I said, "Okay, how do you feel?" And he scribbled away. And then he showed me the tablet and he said, "I feel like when you discipline me you don't love me."
Jim: And I mean, man, I think--
Cynthia: It's a breakthrough, too.
Jim: --that was the night that I really went, okay, I think I get it. And that changed my attitude toward those environments.
Cynthia: Right. And the communication, I mean, it's so critical and yet, we as parents especially, even strong-willed parents knowing, I mean, Jean, haven't you ever said something where right away you're thinkin', I know he's not gonna do it and I never shoulda said that?
Jean: Oh, yes.
Cynthia: But I don't have a reverse gear, right?
Cynthia: I don't have a reverse gear.
Cynthia: I have to drive around it. Now we have to do it the hard way, and it's just practice. And you never do it perfectly and--
Cynthia: --we're not supposed to. God pours from His own pitcher, you know, fillin' in the gaps. But I think our strong-willed kids, they understand our heart better than most kids do even. They know when we're trying. They know when we're making a genuine effort--
Cynthia: --'cause I'm not just blowin' smoke at ya. I'm tryin'. We even have kids [who] will watch, you know, some of the videos that I talk about strong-willed kids or the book and we encourage parents to say, "What do you think? Do you think she's right?" You know, and they get a chance to go, "Yeah, that's how I feel." And so, there's nothing secret about the book, you know. Parents'll say, oh, I don't want him to read it, 'cause then he'll think, then he'll know what I'm using on him. Well, I guarantee you, if you're using something on me, I'm gonna already figure that out, even if I'm only 6-years-old.
So, you're better off just comin' clean and goin, I read about this or I heard about this. I wanted to ask you, 'cause you're just a great strong-willed kid, you know, does this ring true with you? And what else can you tell me about it? We love to share that with you.
Jean: I love that in your book, Cynthia, that you talk about that, how allowing the strong-willed child to have some control over their lives, is not losing the battle essentially. I think some of us as parents can feel that way. If they don't do it our way, they don't do it the moment we ask them to do it, that we're losing the battle. And yet, that is destructive. It is counterproductive.
Jean: And I know you address that, that it is so important to engage that child, to ask them questions and to ask them, how do they think this should be done?
Cynthia: And one of my favorite examples when I was teaching, you know, I'd have a kid come up and go, "I don't want to take a test. I'm not good at tests. I don't even want to take a test and it's a stupid test." (Laughter) And I would say, "That's okay. You don't have to take the test. You need to find some way to prove to me that you know what the eight parts of speech are and how to use 'em. How would you like to do that?" "Uuh! Never mind, I'll just do the test." (Laughter)
But you know, it was one of those things. I'm gonna push and I'm gonna complain and I'm gonna see if there's an option. And then I have the control to say, no, I'll just do it your way, but I said I would do it your way. And you know, and again, you're right, Jim. There are gonna be some very legalistic parents and sometimes, you know, it's often that there's a very intuitive parent married to a non-intuitive parent. Or you know, one of the spouses is very strong on discipline and black and white. And one is not and there can be that clash, where you really have to say, look, can we just agree on what the accountability is? What are we trying to accomplish? And then could we ease up on sometimes on how they get there, but still insist they get there?
Jim: Let me ask you this question not related to the child, but to the parents. How do the parents tolerate each other, and really get on the same page, even though they're going to do things differently? How do you go about doing that?
Cynthia: Well, and again, you start at the end, [the] bottom line is, we need a curfew, right? Or the bottom line is, how do we get there? And well, we get there by tellin' him what the curfew's gonna be and tellin' him what the punishment is. That's how we get there.
Well, but if that doesn't work, how are we still gonna have that? And you know, well, I think you have to kinda work it out with each other before you ever approach your strong-willed child, 'cause otherwise as a strong-willed kid, we can play you. We figured that our really fast and really early how to play you against each other and don't let us do that.
Jim: We had one person who called in to Focus on the Family here and talked about her 11-year-old son, who's a strong-willed child. And she said, you know, he's bossy. He seeks out attention and has even been caught stealing and then lying about it. What can this mom do? Let's talk about a single-parent mom. Just put it in that category. How does a mom engage that strong-willed child about that behavior? What advice would you give her?
Cynthia: Again, when it comes to single parenting especially, and it depends. You know, are you the intuitive one or the non-intuitive one? Your need for transparency and honesty is stronger than ever, to say, "Look, you know I can't do this by myself." And one of the things you can appeal to me as a strong-willed child, in me there's a strong sense of protection of those who can't do for themselves, someone who's been persecuted, someone who's being mistreated. I will champion the cause for them.
So, if it's my own parent who admits a weakness to some extent and I do better with compelling problems to solve than with chores to do, so, pose it to me with a compelling problem. Here is my problem. And then challenge me as the strong-willed child to help you solve it. I'll own it. I'll do more than you thought I would do. And that teaches me responsibility and increases our relationship.
John: Some sound advice from Cynthia Tobias and Jean Daly on this "Focus on the Family" program and Jim, we're just halfway through a very informative conversation.
Jim: That's true, John and I think you'll want to listen again next time for more of these great stories from Cynthia, as well as some of those practical tools to use in dealing with and loving that strong-willed child. It was fun to hear Jean, too. I mean, that, you know, obviously, when it's your wife, you're hearing those stories that you've lived through.
Jim: So, Cynthia's book, You Can't Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded is a great companion to what you just heard. And you can request that resource from us here at Focus and not only has Cynthia written about her personal experiences, but she's also included research from other parents of strong-willed children. And we can learn from that, I'm tellin' ya.
One reader said this. "I wish that this book was around when I was a child, because I feel like it could've really strengthened my relationship with my parents." That must be a firstborn.
John: I guess they're (Laughter) wishing their parents had read it and it would've helped them--
Jim: I'm sure.
Jim: And they went on to say, "Dealing with a strong-willed child is so difficult, but it is worth it and this book shows you how you can achieve it." It's a good testimony of what can be done.
It's so encouraging to have this information and to apply it in your life. And I'd encourage you to get a copy of Cynthia's book today. In fact, when you make a generous donation to Focus today, we'll send you a copy of Cynthia's book as our way of saying thank you.
John: We sure will and you can find it and other broadcasts and articles related to strong-willed children at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or make a donation on the phone and you get the book as a token of our appreciation when you call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
And our program today was provided by Focus on the Family and also supported by generous listeners like you. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening in. I'm John Fuller, inviting you to join us next time when we'll continue this conversation with Cynthia Tobias and Jean Daly about teaming up to parent your strong-willed child, as we once again, help your family thrive.
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Cynthia TobiasView Bio
Jean DalyView Bio
Jean Daly became a Christian in 2nd grade and rededicated her life to Christ at 17. She attended the University of California at Davis and earned her degree in Biology from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Jean has been married to her husband, Jim, since 1986; they have two boys.