Q&A: forcing your child’s handedness

Sorry for the erractic posting of late. I was on vacation, if the definition of "vacation" is schlepping the kids and a bunch of crap by myself to Minnesota to run around like crazy people on an over-packed schedule. We did go to an apple orchard, though. On with the advice.

Emily writes:

"Our son is 10 months old. Last week while the little guy was eating dinner, my husband observed him using his left hand and pretty much declared that he needs to be right-handed and that we (I) should be steering him that way. I should point out that my husband grew up in a culture where being left-handed is NOT OKAY, and kids are taught to be right-handed (genetics be damned). I did tell my husband that a) I see the little guy using both hands pretty equally most of the time; b) it’s likely rather early for his handedness to kick in yet; and c) only about 10-15% of people are left-handed, so he’s probably right-handed anyway, so just be patient. Not to mention the fact that if he is in fact left-handed, his brain is wired differently, and forcing him to switch is going to confuse him big-time. I feel like all of this is rather lost on my husband, who can’t/won’t get past the idea that left-handed activities = devil’s work. What to do?"

Yikes! There are still places that take the etymology of the word sinister literally?

In a nutshell, you’re right. It’s way too early to tell how he’s going to end up. As late as the age of 2 years old we still thought my older son was going to be a leftie, but now at 4.5 he writes and does most things with his right hand. The internet research I’ve done on this topic seems to give 3-4 years old as the age by which kids show definite hand preferences, although some sources say it may not show up until as late as 7. (Some articles say that if a child isn’t showing a definite hand preference by 4, s/he may have delayed physical skills, which could work themselves out or may be a reason to do some occupational therapy. So if your kid is 4 and not showing a hand preference, bring it up with your doctor, but it may not be anything to worry about.)

Forcing kids to go against their natural instincts seems really cruel to me. I’m not sure how you could force a kid to use the opposite hand without being punitive anyway, so it all just seems rather Dickensian, or like the purview of the stereotypical knuckle-wrapping nun. Or maybe you’re supposed to use treats to train him, like you would a dog or a sea lion.

I also don’t think that forcing a kid to use the right hand while you’re watching is going to reduce or eliminate the brain’s natural inclination toward using the left hand. Left-handed kids show more of a mixed handedness than right-handers do in general, so a left-handed kid may easily be able to do plenty of things with the right hand without much effort anyway. You’ll think you’ve trained the kid to use the right hand, but it’s not that big a deal so s/he’ll use the left hand for other things. (My uncle was a leftie as a kid, and his teachers forced him to use his right hand at school. By the time my grandmother found out about it and went to the school to put a stop to that, he was using his right hand to write, but his left to do almost everything else he did. Eventually he became virtually ambidextrous, which was not at all what his teachers intended. It was great for his career as an eye surgeon, though.)

I guess that could be the (tongue-in-cheek) ultimate solution to your problem if your son does turn out to be a leftie in 3 years. You could ask your son to use his right hand only when he’s with your husband, who won’t have to know that it’s just an act for his benefit.

Seriously, though, your son probably won’t be left-handed. In the meantime, maybe you can use this list of Famous Left-Handed People (Julia Roberts! Oscar de la Hoya! Bil Clinton! Lord Baden-Powell!) to help bring your husband around to the 21st Century just in case your son or a future child is a leftie.