My husband is left-handed, so we weren’t completely surprised when our first-born showed signs of being a lefty. But when our second and third kids also turned out to be left-handed, I started to wonder how big a role his genes played.
About 10 percent of the population prefer their left hands, but Clare Porac, a psychologist at Penn State Erie, in Erie, Pennsylvania, is writing a book on the topic and says that even the leading scientists on the genetics of handedness say the causes are complex. Genetics likely have a part, but studies show that the way we interact with our kids may, too—handing things to their left sides, for example. My kids could have even influenced each other.
While a child might start preferring a certain hand when he’s around six or nine months old, it’s normal for babies and toddlers to use both hands—picking up crayons with whichever hand is closest or switching mid-project, says Melissa Gibbons, an occupational therapist in Halifax. A child you thought was a lefty could very well end up being right-handed. It’s not until around age four that you should really start paying attention to which hand they’re using for things like colouring, printing letters and holding cutlery.
“The way you develop efficient fine motor skills and dexterity in one hand is to use that hand for the majority of these skills,” says Gibbons, who suggests gently reminding your child to use his dominant hand if he’s occasionally using the other at this age.
Think your child is ambidextrous because he can do everything with either hand? Gibbons says this is rare; many kids who use both hands can’t do anything well with either.
“You’ve got a bunch of left-handed geniuses,” our paediatrician once joked. I’d love to believe her—it’s sometimes said that lefties are natural leaders (three out of the last four American presidents were left-handed) or have a flair for the creative (Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed)—but for everyday tasks, it can be challenging. Can openers need to be turned with your right hand and computer keyboards and mice are designed for righties. My husband remembers racing to university lecture halls to snag one of the only two seats built with a desk on the left.
Most adults will tell you they’ve adapted. But for kids, it can be frustrating. My seven-year-old struggles with printing, which is common in lefties because they have to “push” their pencils along the paper from left to right on a page, rather than “pull” it like right-handed people do. She also found using scissors difficult until she got left-handed ones. When learning to tie shoelaces, she’d loop hers the opposite way that I was. And you should have seen the confusion on the T-ball field when she was five, with the coach placing her on one side of the tee and her father and I shouting for her to stand on the other side.
If you have a lefty, it’s important to create an environment that minimizes challenges, says Gibbons. Situate him at the left edge of the table so he doesn’t bump elbows with others, and tilt his paper so the lower right corner is pointing at his belly button. (This also minimizes the “hook” position they commonly use so they can see what they’re writing.) You may need to be the one to provide helpful strategies (and left-handed scissors) to your child’s teacher.
However, it turns out we were all wrong to tell my daughter which side of the tee to stand on. When it comes to sports, experts suggest letting all kids experiment with equipment to see what works best for them. The hand you write with isn’t always an indication of how you’ll hold a bat or throw a ball.
Despite the challenges, my daughter is taking her left-handedness in stride and I know, with a little help, all my children will figure out how to navigate life confidently in this right-handed world.
TIP: Lefties who are learning to write are prone to “mirror writing,” where they start at the right-hand side of the page and write every word and letter backwards. Gibbons says it’s not a concern in the early stages, though you should monitor it if it continues as they get older. Try putting a small dot on the paper to remind your child where to start her word.
A version of this article appeared in our February 2015 issue with the headline, “Life as a lefty,” p. 51.