Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2005.
Someone asked me this question recently, and since I happen to have a wonderful answer from a sensitive school teacher, I thought I would pass it on. Alas, I apologize if she reads this, as I have forgotten her name and cannot give her credit. But she told me that she explained sensitivity to her class by using my deer analogy as a biology lesson about individual differences in animals and people, but I thought she added some wonderful twists.
We did not discuss how she began it, but I imagine that she explained that scientists have found that animals come in two “flavors” or innate types-one type prefers to observe and reflect before acting, taking few risks, doing it once and doing it right. The others act more quickly with less reflection. So you could say that one specializes in processing information, the other in action or motor activity. They can see that people, and all animals within a given species, can have different innate personalities. Certainly infants differ from birth. And look at dogs. They all belong to the same species, yet there are so many different breeds, developed by humans or by evolution, each with their function and suitable personalities.
Then turning to the deer example, this teacher said that she describes, as I do, a meadow with excellent grass growing in it and two deer on the edge of it. One deer is being very careful before entering the meadow, wanting to be sure it is safe. About twenty percent of deer and humans and most species are like this. (A California Fish and Wildlife manager told me that when they do a deer census, they add twenty percent for the deer that are not counted because they sense the trip wire that photographs the deer in order to do the census. The others don’t notice it.) The other deer checks some, but then goes out and eats the grass. These represent eighty percent of the population of deer and of humans.
Why would there be two types? Each has a chance of being successful, depending on the situation. If there’s real danger-if this is a period when predators are plentiful–the careful deer is right. If there’s no danger, or this is a period when food is scarce, then the less careful deer is right, in that it is able to eat the most nutritious grass.
Here’s the brilliant part. She said that she has the class line themselves up along the wall according to the type they think they are, from being like the deer that’s careful to being like the one that would just go out and eat the grass. Then she let’s the class consider what types of school behavior might indicate these types and whether they agree with where their classmates placed themselves. Then they move on to a discussion of how different styles of thinking and acting can represent innate differences that are equally useful and valid, but arise from different genetic traits representing different strategies for survival that have evolved for good reasons.
Of course you don’t have to use examples of a prey animal, like deer, if that might seem too wimpy. The same could be done with predators. “What kind of lion are you?” Some members of the same species, probably that twenty percent again, have the innate tendency to be careful strategists, observing and deciding which animal is best to pursue, moving up slowly on it, saving energy by “doing it once and doing it right.” Other predators, the majority, pick their prey with less care, meaning they have to try more often before they catch one.
All sorts of conditions might determine which strategy was best. For example, if prey are scarce, have been hunted often, and are very alert, the careful strategy would work better, especially if the predators are in general undernourished and can’t afford to make mistakes. But if prey are abundant and the predators are well fed, the one first to give chase might have the better strategy, capturing an animal before the others are alerted and run off.
Notice that so far the word sensitive has not even come up. A class might even decide what one-word name they would give to this special trait, since “genes don’t come with labels on them.” Then they could discuss how the different names– “shy,” “smart,” “careful,” “timid,” “observant,” etc.–would make you feel about the trait and the person having it. And what about those without the trait? What if you called them “bold,” “impulsive,” “stupid,” or “uninhibited”?
One could even go on to discuss the problem with labels for the trait that imply shyness or fear by discussing the interaction I have described in humans-that persons who process everything carefully are more affected by having bad things happen to them, so that they grow up to be more depressed, anxious, and shy than those who had bad things happen to them but did not process these things so much. But someone who processes everything but has a good childhood is not any more anxious or depressed or shy than those who do not. In fact, they may be better off. In the case of monkeys with this trait of observing before acting,, if they are raised by especially adept parents, they grow up to be the leaders of their troop.
Returning to the deer, if the observant deer, or whatever one calls them, had observed many predators in that particular meadow or even generally in their lives, they might be very afraid to enter the meadow. But if they had observed few predators there in the past, or even that in the past their slowness had caused them to miss out on the best grass, they might enter the meadow as fast or even faster than the other deer. So we can’t call them fearful or even slow or cautious deer. In a sense, they simply have better memories.
Obviously the above could be adapted to speaking to an individual child, and one that is a little older or younger than a sixth grader would be.