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One size doesn’t fit all

Posted by Stephen Cowan, MD on

This is how I often start my work with parents and children. It’s a liberating statement that’s taken me a long time to learn. I needed to first let go of the way I had been trained to think as a doctor. All doctors are trained in hospitals to manage emergencies quickly and efficiently. But as I would find out when I went out into community practice, emergencies make up less than 1 percent of health care. Quick fix approaches simply don't work when it comes to growing a healthy child. As I discovered, children come in different shapes and sizes and more to the point, different temperaments. Temperament refers to the particular character and adaptive style each child has. How is it that two children can come from the same parents’ genes, live in the same house and eat the same food and still have completely different personalities. It turns out who we are tells us how we are!

When we honor a child’s unique character or what I tell children is their “secret power,” we look beyond rigid labels and diagnoses that limit their potential for growth. Research has demonstrated the countless benefits of shifting our way of thinking from having a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Fixed mindsets divide the world into black/white, right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure. Whenever we put children into boxes like this, we take them out of context. And everyone knows that there’s always trouble when we take things out of context. This leads to generalizations, judgments, resentment, and shame, leaving a child feeling alienated and parents feeling like their child is broken and in need of emergency fixing. But as I’ve said, growing a healthy child is not an emergency. It’s a slow ripening process, more like growing a tomato plant than fixing a car. We need to carefully examine the quality of the soil, the water, the sunlight, the air to find out what’s needed to encourage growth. Something magical happens when I start by asking “what’s right with your child” instead of asking “what’s wrong.”

The journey starts right under your feet!

Having a growth mindset stands in sharp contrast to fixed mindset thinking. It embraces the journey over the destination. This is what makes the adventure of raising a child so exciting. It’s about process not product! My work these days focuses on providing an understanding of the whole child, taking into consideration the child’s preferences and talents, as well as the environment in which he or she is growing. For kids, I explain that once we can figure out their secret power, we can then grow it so they can become true heroes. In my book Fire Child Water Child, I discussed the five temperament styles: Wood, Fire, Earth, Gold (metal) and Water. The diverse ways children grow tells me what is needed to support and challenge growth. That’s right, challenge growth. For healthy resilient growth to take place we need to both nourish and challenge that growth. When we know who your child is, we discover a set of predictable patterns of relationships that we can use to encourage healthy growth.

Each child has a particular orientation around the five forces of nature that tells us what will nourish (arms) and what will challenge (legs) growth. The leg-powers give us our strength and stability to deal with stress. The arm-powers enable us to share our gifts with the world.

For example, a child with:

Wood power is a natural explorer, whose love of movement and freedom is nourished by independence (water feeds wood) and challenged by rules (metal prunes wood). When stressed, the wood child can become too pushy and oppositional, taking it out on the group (wood dominates earth).

Fire Power is a natural entertainer, whose love of joyful play is nourished by movement and encouragement (wood feeds fire) and challenged by stillness and quiet (water cools fire). When stressed, the fire child becomes too impulsive and overly dramatic, creating chaos (fire melts gold).

Earth Power is a natural peacemaker, whose love of collaboration is nourished by optimism (fire feeds earth) and challenged by competition (wood drives through earth). When stressed, the earth child becomes over-caring, worrying too much and is unable to make decisions (earth muddies water).

Gold Power is a natural designer whose love of beauty and grace is nourished by consistency (earth feeds gold) and challenged by change (fire melts gold). When stressed, the gold child can become stuck on what’s wrong and can’t go with the flow (gold cuts down wood).

Water Power is a natural dreamer whose love of the deep mysteries of life is nourished by rhythm and order (gold feeds water) and challenged by social pressure (earth muddies water). When stressed, the water child withdraws, becoming apathetic (water puts out fire).

I find that when caregivers take time to understand the unique dynamic patterns at play for each child, they know exactly what that child needs to grow and thrive. When we honor and dignify their uniqueness, we liberate them from impersonal labels and judgments that only limit their success. Such empathy becomes the first step in the journey of self-discovery.

To find out what more about your child’s unique blend of secret powers go to

and also check out Ellen Feig Gray’s blog at


Stephen Cowan, MD Stephen Cowan, MD is a board-certified pediatrician with 25 years of clinical experience working with children. He now writes, teaches, and maintains a busy private practice in NYC

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