International Children’s Education
Sharing resources, supporting families and teachers overseas...
Left-Handed Children in a Right-Handed World
by Wayne Lance
August 13th…“International Left-handers Day”…You probably didn’t know that!
Well, perhaps you do know about August 13th if you happen to be among the ten percent (plus or minus two or three percentage points) of the world population who are left-handed. Or perhaps you have one or more left-handed children and find this to be an interesting, and sometimes troubling, phenomenon.
Troubling? It is if you are a student trying to sit in a right-handed desk; or trying to use a right-handed potato peeler or right-handed scissors; or a right-handed mouse — or any of the other right-handed devices. It is if you face the dangers of using a right-handed skill saw or get bad marks from your teacher because of handwriting. It is if you analyze terminology such as: “left-handed compliment,” “left-wing,” “out in left field;” or in French, “gauche;” German, “linkish;” Russian, “levja;” Latin, “sinistra”—none of which are especially complementary.
To expand on Webster’s definition above, being left-handed implies having a preference for using the left hand for a variety of tasks, including reaching, throwing, pointing, and catching. It usually also includes a preference for using the left foot to begin walking, running, and bicycling and for tasks such as kicking. A person may also have a dominant left eye, although a preference for using the left hand does not necessarily indicate a preference for the left foot or left eye.
It is not always easy to determine if a very young child is left- or right-handed. During infancy and the early toddler years, children will often use both hands to perform certain functions, without favoring one over the other. A favored hand may become obvious as early as eight months; by age three a preference is usually well developed. A child may be ambidextrous (equally dexterous with either hand) and in this case mere observation will probably not reveal a preferred dominance. However, many of those who appear to be ambidextrous usually manifest a clear division of labor between their hands on careful examination.
A simple test (but not always accurate) is to sit comfortably, fold the hands together, and note which thumb is on top. Lefties may have the right thumb on top, though for some strange reason right-handers may not necessarily have the left thumb on top. To check eye dominance do the following: with both eyes open, line up the tip of the fingers at arm’s length with a distant object. Close each eye separately. The eye that results in the object and the fingers remaining aligned is the dominant eye.
Help or Hindrance?
Does being left-handed in a predominantly right-handed society always prove to be a hindrance? In the past, there was often pressure to change left-handed people into right-handers. In fact, some educators in the early part of this century in the United States referred to left-handedness as a disease, and efforts were made to “cure” the disease. Children were often hit across the knuckles if they were caught using their left hands.
In the early days of trying to understand dyslexia, especially the tendency to perceive and write words and letters in reverse, some educators recommended suppressing left-handed activities in order to try and establish the dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain. Educators currently realize that both hemispheres contribute to the process of learning and suppressing left-handedness is counterproductive.
It is interesting to note in the dictionary definition that left-handed also implies being clumsy and awkward. This is not borne out in practice. It is true that left-handers have difficulty using right-handed tools, such as scissors, and for this reason might appear clumsy, but when right-handers try to use left-handed tools, they appear even more clumsy.
Being left-handed apparently has some definite advantages, especially in sporting events. Without going into explanations as to why this may be true, suffice it to say that left-handed hitters and pitchers seem to have a high rate of success in baseball, as do left-handed fencers, and left-armed batsmen and bowlers in cricket.
Among the list of negative factors attached to being left-handed is some statistical evidence that left-handers die younger than right-handers. While this is a controversial finding, if there is some truth to it, a possible explanation may have to do with driving accidents. In the U.S. and Canada, from which the data was derived, people drive on the right. A left-hand startle reflex would be more apt to cause the driver to end up pointing against traffic while a right-hand startle reflex would cause the car to drive off the road.
Special Challenges for Left-handers
In addition to some of the more obvious challenges for left-handers in a right-handed world (e.g., scissors, school desks, pencil sharpeners), being left-handed can correlate with difficulty in learning to read and write and to understand other school subjects. English text reads from left to right and this is consistent with right-handed individuals naturally looking and moving to the right. Left-handed individuals naturally look and move to the left, thus reading text left to right has to be more intentionally learned.
Handwriting can present a special obstacle for lefties. The handwriting tips for left-handers on page five provide some suggestions to help overcome these. Adaptations also need to be made for left-handers in manual arts (especially tools), music (instruments and instruction manuals), business education (teaching keyboarding, using computers), and physical education (equipment).
Parents and teachers also need to be aware of the potential impact on self-esteem because of certain popular beliefs and myths and the strong dominance of right-handedness in our society. Positive attitudes of parents and teachers, as well as positive role models, can help the child accept left-handedness as a special expression of God’s creativity.
Factors to Consider in Teaching Left-handers
There are a number of things a parent or teacher can do to overcome the challenges associated with being left-handed.
Benowitz, Barry D. “alt.lefthanders Frequently Asked Questions”. http://www.cs.uu.nl/wais/html/na-dir/lefty-faq.html
Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 1998.
Kelly, Evelyn B. Left-Handed Students: A Forgotten Minority. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa, 1996. —wdl
Reprinted from the August 1998 issue of Parents Teaching Overseas.
© 2005 SIL International, all rights reserved,
unless otherwise noted elsewhere on this page.