As I was reading Stephen Cowan, MD’s Fire Child Water Child, a book that Deepak Chopra called “groundbreaking work,” I kept thinking to myself, “I wish Dr. Cowan had been my child’s pediatrician, and wouldn’t it have been great if this book was available when I was raising my son.” The perspective that Dr. Cowan presents does indeed break through our commonly held assumption that when it comes to helping children learn and focus “one size fits all.” Instead, Dr. Cowan acknowledges that there are wide variations in how children pay attention and focus and treating them all the same way “is a little like expecting all tomato plants to grow identically.” Like gardeners growing tomatoes by knowing when and how much to water and prune, or when they need more sun, it is our challenge as parents and teachers to understand each child’s adaptive style, support their developmental needs, and create an emotionally secure environment so that they can flourish.
The subtitle of Fire Child Water Child reads “how understanding the five types of ADHD can help you improve your child’s self-esteem & attention,” yet its scope goes well beyond the realm of ADHD. Cowan proposes a holistic model of adaptive styles based on ancient Chinese wisdom that can be applied to every child. This perspective shifts our focus away from the world of labeling and pathologizing children when they have trouble paying attention, towards an understanding of how their natural adaptive strengths can be nourished in order to flourish.
According to the Fire Child, Water Child model, each one of us is born with a propensity for adapting to his or her environment in ways that correspond to one of the “forces of nature that shape our lives”: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. Dr. Cowan paints a picture of each of the five types and illustrates them with stories from his many years of treating children and teens in his pediatric practice. He explains that when children’s natural adaptive tendencies are threatened, they may have trouble focusing and paying attention, become impulsive, and less confident.
“The Wood Child is the adventurous explorer, always on the move and gets frustrated easily.”
“The Fire Child is outgoing, funny, and can be prone to mood swings and impulsive actions.”
“The Earth Child is the cooperative peacemaker who can feel worried and indecisive when stressed.”
“The Metal Child is comforted by routine and finds it difficult to shift attention from task to task.”
“The Water Child is an imaginative dreamer, deeply introspective, who struggles to keep track of time.”
Not only does Dr. Cowan describe the five adaptive styles, but he offers practical tools and techniques for each type to help them “master the powers of attention.” Many of these activities are practices that can be easily implemented at home without training or skill. These range from mindfulness practices, yoga postures, and breathing exercises to games, songs, and food recommendations, among others.
Even though I did not have the benefit of reading Fire Child Water Child or meeting Dr. Cowan until my own child was in college, I am fortunate that I did have the guidance of an acupuncture physician who served as our family practitioner since my son was born. Thankfully, Dan Nevel had been trained in the school of Chinese medicine on which Fire Child Water Child is based, and he helped me appreciate and guide my active, boundary-pushing, enthusiastic Wood child to flourish, despite numerous phone calls from teachers who complained that he was fidgety, couldn’t sit still, and preferred to challenge rather than obey the rules. Embracing the Fire Child Water Child perspective was critical to how I parented and advocated for my child throughout his school years because it allowed me to nurture his strengths and shift my focus to his gifts.
I highly recommend Fire Child Water Child to all parents as a loving guide for understanding each of their one-of-a-kind children, celebrating their uniqueness and helping them succeed in school and in life.