Deer in the Headlights

“Dr. Crane isn’t here right now, but if you’d like to make
an appointment.”—Dr. Jonathan Crane, Batman Begins (2005)

xqe9jIndie’s face was ashen when he returned to the table. He was horrified. Looked like he’d seen a ghost. “There’s a deer back there, daddy—a stuffed deer.” We were at Parc-Nature de la Pointe-aux-Prairies with Wild Side Day Camp, having a home-cooked lunch in the park’s exceptionally sweet chalet. Indie wasn’t especially hungry so he wandered around the chalet, checking out the various displays, and paying special attention to the terrarium filled with Northern Walkingsticks from Mount Royal—until he locked eyes with that dead doe!

“Daddy, tell me the truth, did they kill that deer just so they could put it in the display glass case?” “No—well, I highly doubt it, Indie.” “But how can you be sure?” “I’ll ask one of the park’s naturalists. I’ll ask Annique.” Of course she assured us that they didn’t shoot Bambi’s mom. The doe was hit by a car on Sherbrooke Street, a broad boulevard that bisects the southern half of the park. But Indie wasn’t satisfied with the blonde biologist’s response. That much was clear: “Was the car speeding? Did the driver sneak up on the deer?” “Non, non,” she said. “Probablement pas.” “But can’t deer see, like, really REALLY well?” “Mais oui.” “And they can hear real good too, right?” “Bien sur.” “So then how does a car hit a deer on a long straight street, when the deer can see—and hear—the car coming for a long time?” Annique smiled: “Bonne question.”

She then explained to Indie, and the rest of the kids, that deer—like many other animals, including us—have one of three responses to intense fear: fight, flight, or freeze. These responses work well for deer most of the time. But not all the time. For instance, the headlights of an oncoming vehicle can sometimes cause a deer to go into freeze mode. When this happens, the deer is quite literally paralyzed by the light, totally incapable of movement, mesmerized: might as well be nailed to the road. You can honk your horn as often and as loudly as you want: it won’t move because it can’t move. Obviously the deer doesn’t have a death wish: it doesn’t want to die, it doesn’t want to get hit by your car.

But a mammal in freeze mode is—like a mammal in fight mode or flight mode—temporarily insane. The more sophisticated parts of its mammalian brain—those responsible for higher reasoning, impulse control, strategic thinking, and empathy—have been hijacked and taken over by more primitive parts of the brain: the purely reactive parts we share with cockroaches and crocodiles. Trying to reason with someone who’s in fight, flight, or freeze mode is like trying to reason with someone who’s pissed drunk. Threats don’t work on them because they’ve lost the ability to think about the future, calculate risk, and make rational choices.

In David and Goliath (2013), Malcolm Gladwell maintains that one of the major flaws in the reasoning behind California’s infamous “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law was its assumption of criminal rationality—viz., the lawmakers who drafted Proposition 184, and the voters who supported it, presumed (falsely) that violent criminals are reasonable people who worry about the future and make rational choices. This is, avers Gladwell, demonstrably false. A dude that’s high on crystal meth and crack all day long isn’t thinking about tomorrow, much less midlife. He’s living for the moment. And his brain is in fight, flight, or freeze mode most of the time. As such, dramatically increasing minimum sentencing laws isn’t going to curtail his criminality. The parts of his brain that might respond to this threat aren’t here right now.

Thinking about these things today, after a particularly difficult morning, has led me to question the way I sometimes discipline my kids. Like most North American parents—who’ve long since given up on corporal punishment—I threaten to take away their toys, freedoms, and stuff when they’re acting up. This works, for the most part, when you’re dealing with a reasonable kid. But sometimes you’re dealing with a kid who’s in the midst of a full-blown temper tantrum—a kid who’s in fight mode—and sometimes you’re dealing with an introverted kid who’s having a panic attack—a kid who’s in freeze mode (like a deer in the headlights).

At these times, I’ve discovered, much to my chagrin, threatening to take away their rights to this and that is pretty much futile. Like Dr. Crane, they’re not here right now. As such, threatening them with consequences (e.g., “I’m gonna take away your video game privileges for a month!”) is a waste of time because their capacity for foresight is seriously impaired. Trying to lay an epic guilt trip on them (e.g., “how could you do this to me?”) is equally useless because they’ve lost the ability to empathize with you. When a kid’s in fight, flight, or freeze mode, my guess is that the best thing to do is wait until they calm down.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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