In a recording studio in downtown Bethesda, Linda Perlis and Sandra Burt dived into a discussion about sibling rivalry. Across a table sat T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow, well-known doctors and authors of books about child development.
"What would you say are parents' biggest challenges when it comes to sibling rivalry?" Perlis asked the doctors.
"They can't stay out of it," Brazelton said, eliciting a laugh from the group.
Expanding on lessons from one of their newest books, the doctors talked about helping children learn through working out their disagreements. But is it safe to leave fighting children on their own, Perlis asked.
"I used to hide in the bathroom is why I ask if it's safe," she said a bit sheepishly. "I hid from my children when they fought with each other -- I had three little boys."
"I bet those three did beat each other up," Brazelton reassured her with a smile. "But look what they learned."
The conversation sounded like a friendly chat between inquisitive mothers and doctors giving everyday advice about raising children. It was -- except this one will be heard in August by more than a half-million radio listeners around the world who tune in to Perlis and Burt's weekly show, "Parents' Perspective."
With no formal training, the two Washington area women have built a radio show heard on 14 stations across the country, from Coos Bay, Ore., to Salt Lake City to Chicago to Boston. They're also heard on military bases throughout the United States and overseas on Soldiers Radio & Satellite Network and Armed Forces Radio. The 30-minute show airs locally at 5:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on Federal News Radio, WFED-AM (1050). It also airs Sunday mornings in the Annapolis area and Southern Maryland on WRNR-FM (103.1) and on the Eastern Shore on WINX-FM (94.3).
In more than 260 shows over eight years, the close friends have drawn on their experience as mothers -- they have raised seven boys between them -- to ask experts on parenting, education and medicine the questions they think other parents want answers to. How do you comfort a child in a post-9/11 world of fear and anxiety? How do you carve out downtime when both parents work and the kids are scheduled to the hilt with flute lessons, gymnastics and Girl Scouts? How do you stay close to your child when a judge has denied you custody? How should you expose your toddler to a foreign language or music? What do you do when your son tells you he's gay, or your firstborn is autistic, or your daughter gets so sick she might die?
"It's not a cookbook approach," said Perlis, 61, of Potomac. "It's never, 'This is how to toilet train your toddler.' It's more, 'Here's a lot of information we've gathered for you with an expert that we think your family might be thinking about or worrying about.' "
"It's a caring approach from two moms," added Burt, 58, who lives in the District. "Everything we put on is something we'd like to hear as a listener."
Although it's a full-time job, Perlis and Burt said, they've never pocketed a salary. They produce the show as part of their nonprofit Parents' Perspective Inc. and fund the show's $20,000 annual budget through donations, grants and royalties from two books. Most of the money goes to renting time at Avalon Recording Studios in Bethesda, mailing CDs to the stations and buying office supplies. About 40 volunteers help raise money and do office work.
The show opens with piano music composed by Burt's son Jonathan. The women interview one or two experts, usually on issues in the news or something parents are talking about. Guests have included authors, social workers, psychiatrists, teachers, researchers and police officers.
They can't afford to fly in guests for interviews, but doing a show from the nation's capital helps. They often get experts who are in town for a conference or book tour, and they frequently draw from the military, the National Institutes of Health, and parenting and educational groups with headquarters in the District.
Every four to six weeks, they focus on a topic related to raising children in the post-9/11 world. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) participated in a show about "communities in crisis" after the October 2002 sniper attacks. After news stories emerged about U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Perlis and Burt interviewed a retired Army colonel in a show titled "Conscience Under Stress."
"Parents with teenagers and young adults were probably wondering what their children would do in that kind of stressful situation," Burt said.
They don't ask "gotcha" questions, interrupt or argue. They also don't break for commercials, though that means they often are relegated to smaller-audience time slots that advertisers don't want.
"We didn't want anyone to say, 'You must advertise Huggies' or, 'You must talk about toilet training,' " Perlis said. "We wanted to decide whom we talked to and what we talked about."
News and programming directors at stations that air "Parents' Perspective" say the show gets good feedback and addresses unusual topics in an interesting way.
David Oziel, news director for Federal News Radio, said he must air "Parents' Perspective" at 5:30 a.m. on weekends because that's not valuable commercial time.
The show's time slot "has nothing to do with the quality of the program at all," Oziel said. "It's a program that deserves to be heard."
Oziel said it provides a useful public service, such as a recent show that discussed exposing toddlers to foreign languages.
"They get issues that parents are thinking about and talking about and issues people wouldn't even consider," Oziel said.
Barry Keefe, director of news and public affairs at WTMX-FM (101.9) in Chicago, attributes the station's awards for public service broadcasting in part to "Parents' Perspective." He said the station, which airs mostly 1980s and 1990s pop music, draws about 35,000 listeners to some portion of the show, which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays.
"There's a breadth to what they do that I don't find in other shows when it comes to parenting," Keefe said, recalling a recent Burt and Perlis interview with Piotr Gajewski, conductor of the National Philharmonic, about getting children interested in music.
Burt and Perlis figured the show would appeal mostly to mothers, but they say half of their callers are men. Many topics, such as postpartum depression or coping with losing a child, hit a nerve.
"We've had people call sobbing and saying, 'We've been dealing with these issues. Thank you,' " Burt said.
Because the shows are taped, listeners cannot call in with questions. However, people can call 800-791-8573 to get more information on a show's topic.
Much in Common
At the root of the show is a close friendship born of a common experience of raising boys. Sitting face to face six feet apart at their desks in a bedroom-turned-office in Perlis's home, Perlis and Burt crack jokes and laugh as they go about their work. They call each other "boss." They seem to know as much about the other one's children as their own.
Asked for her middle son's age, Perlis answered "31." Then she turned to Burt. "Is that right?"
Her friend nodded. "Yes, that's right."
They fishtail in and out of each other's conversations, finishing each other's sentences. "One of us can say, 'Do you have the whoozee-what's-it on the thingamabob?' and we know exactly what we're saying," Perlis said.
They met 25 years ago. A mutual friend thought their oldest sons, both 8 at the time, would get along. The boys played together well enough. But it was their mothers, both former English teachers and young stay-at-home moms active in their kids' schools, who really clicked.
"We got together so our children could play and decided we liked playing ourselves," Perlis said.
They laughed at the same things. While their older children were in school and the younger ones crawled or toddled around their living rooms, they swapped stories and laughed about the joys and frustrations of raising sons.
They quickly realized that they shared a parenting philosophy: that rather than push their children in a certain direction, they should discover and nurture each child's interests and talents. Perlis found fencing classes for one son. Burt found a music camp in New Hampshire for a son interested in composing. Other parents, they said, remarked on how their children excelled with vastly different talents.
"People asked, 'How'd he get to be so good at that?' or 'How did you find a class for him?' " Burt said. "We thought that was obvious stuff, but other people didn't."
They both liked to write, so in the early 1980s they began writing short essays together for parenting magazines. They said they weren't looking for new careers, just an outlet for stories they enjoyed telling. Soon they began receiving speaking invitations from PTAs, nursery schools and community groups.
"People asked us to speak because they thought we were experts," Perlis recalled, "but we weren't. We were just young moms."
Their first book, "It's in the Male," about raising boys, didn't get published. Their second attempt, "Parents as Mentors," about how to develop a child's natural talents, was published in 1999.
While they were working on the book, one of Burt's fellow swim team parents suggested that Burt and Perlis try a radio show. The swim team mother's family owned some stations in southwest Oregon, Burt recalled. They recorded two demo tapes on a boom box in Perlis's sunroom.
The radio careers that took off didn't surprise their families.
"Both Linda and Sandy came from a generation where well-educated women had raising children as their primary focus," said Burt's husband, Jeff Burt, 61, a Washington lawyer. "The consequence of that is Linda and Sandy are very knowledgeable parents. When their kids were in their final phases and about to leave home, Linda and Sandy looked at what their post-children careers would be. It was very natural for them to want to share their knowledge with other parents."
Perlis's husband, Barry R. Perlis, 62, who runs a paper supply company, said his wife treats the radio show as more than a full-time job.
"It's a commitment to helping parents all over the world," he said. "Her drive is to spread the word that there are things you can do to be a more successful parent."
Besides producing "Parents' Perspective," Burt and Perlis are busy updating their Fodor's travel guide, "Washington, D.C. With Kids."
Their seven boys are grown and starting families. Friends who are empty nesters are spending free time visiting museums or going to lunch. Burt and Perlis said they don't mind working full-time with no salary. They said they feel as if they're giving something to others in appreciation for the families they were able to raise.
"We are so grateful for our families being the way they are," Perlis said.
"We thought we had something . . ." Burt began to add, before Perlis finished for her: "We thought we had something to share."
More information is available at www.parentsperspective.org.