When a child develops a rash, a cough or a fever, chances are his parents will consult their local baby doctor. But when that child refuses to sleep in his own bed, bops his baby brother on the head repeatedly or throws fits in the A&P, the expert his frazzled folks are more and more likely to turn to is Dr. Lawrence Balter, the ABC radio network’s resident child psychologist. Grateful parents call him “my guru” and “a savior” because he gives personal answers unlike the general information in child-care manuals. Listen to the advice he recently gave Suzy from Kansas City, who can’t get her 2-year-old daughter to pick up her toys, even after a spanking.
“She needs to learn to obey you,” says Balter, “but I don’t think she’s capable of doing that completely at 2.” As Suzy and several hundred thousand others listen, Balter explains that 2 year olds lack the self-control to tackle tasks alone, and he suggests that Suzy get involved in the cleanup by turning it into a game. He also discusses his pet peeve—spanking. “Rule it out,” he advises. “It doesn’t work. The only thing it teaches children is, if you can’t resolve a problem, hit somebody.”
Balter’s radio program started on the East Coast three years ago and expanded to include a national version last year. With tact befitting a foreign service officer, Balter, 47, never runs out of answers nor does he make fun of the sometimes trivial complaints. He fields questions on subjects such as crying (“Don’t let it go unattended for more than a few minutes, because the child doesn’t learn anything good from it”); tantrums (“There’s probably nothing a parent can do to stop a child from having one”); thumb-sucking (“Help the child find the right motivator to stop it, an activity that’s more pleasurable than the sucking”) and bed-wetting (“Reassure him it’s not his fault rather than shame him”). The most common complaint, however, is about sleep, or more accurately, the lack of it. “Parents think that if their child doesn’t sleep 12 hours a night there’s something wrong, but that’s a myth,” says Balter. “Kids are like everybody else, some are worse sleepers, some are better. It’s annoying to have to get up in the middle of the night to comfort your child. But it comes with the territory.”
Balter considers some subjects beyond his purview; he won’t answer medical questions or deal with problems of teenagers past the age of 17. Nor will he take calls—they’re screened out ahead of time—from third parties. “They can’t give me all the information,” he explains. “They can’t implement my advice, and they’ll probably use it to butt into someone else’s child rearing.” Nor, Balter claims, does he do radio therapy. He describes himself as an educator because he gives out information instead of analyzing problems.
For example, Balter cites a call he got from a mother whose 4 year old kept hitting her uncontrollably. Balter gave her some ideas about how to handle the outbursts without hitting the child back and suggested that she have him evaluated by his school psychologist for possible neurological problems. When giving face-to-face therapy in his private practice, Balter gets much more involved with the child. “I would use puppets or drawings with him to find out why he is so angry and frustrated,” Balter says. “And if I were a family therapist, which I’m not, I would want to see the dynamic that goes on in this family. Is the father abusive to the mother? Do they scream and yell at each other?”
The elder of two children of a Brooklyn movie theater projectionist and a housewife, Balter was “a talker from the word go. My mother also tells me I wasn’t a great sleeper, which makes me laugh considering the calls I get about it.” In 1962 Balter got his master’s in psychology from City College in Manhattan, then worked for a few years as a public school psychologist before getting his doctorate at New York University, where he now teaches. Last May he published his first book, Dr. Balter’s Child Sense (Poseidon, $16.95), with help from writer Anita Shreve.
Part of Balter’s job includes overseeing NYU’s Warm Line. This call-in service, initiated in 1979, offers non-medical guidance about child rearing from doctoral students, under Balter’s aegis. Combined with Balter’s experience as a parent (he is the divorced father of three teenage sons), Warm Line led him to believe that he had heard “every possible question any parent could have.” When he approached a local New York radio station about his idea for a program, Balter had no idea what the reaction would be, but he was granted an audition for a talk show. “I went in cold,” recalls Balter. “It was 2 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday, and I thought nobody would be out there, but the lines just lit up.”
Balter’s fans include experienced educators. “He’s performing a great service,” says Hannah Nuba Scheffler, director of the New York Public Library’s Early Childhood Resource and Information Center. “He believes as we do that parents are a child’s most important educators.”
After three years those parents still come up with an occasional problem that takes Balter by surprise. “Someone called a while ago,” he explains, “and said, ‘I don’t know how to tell my child that he was born through artificial insemination.’ ” Balter calmly advised the parent to discuss the subject early so that it wouldn’t come as a shock later. But even a seasoned pro like Balter admits that question was a new one.