Raising a Left-Handed Child in a Right-Handed World

Don't let your left-handed child feel left out. Help her feel comfortable and special by developing her left-hand skills for writing and playing sports.

child writing
Photo: Alexandra Grablewski

Statistics show that about 9 out of every 10 people worldwide are right-handed -- so a tenth of the population has been seemingly "left out" throughout history. Daniel J. Sonkin, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist who is left-handed, recalls growing up lefty in a righty world. "I never realized until I was older that the world is really made for right-handed people," Dr. Sonkin says. "I used to think I was just a little clumsy walking through doors, on steps, or moving quickly around obstacles. I learned later that there were subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle -- differences in the construction of objects that was based on handiness."

Ask parents when they first discovered their child's lefty preference, and most will tell you it was a gradual realization. "I don't remember exactly when we began to [realize] Chris was a lefty, [probably] somewhere as a toddler, before he was really able to write, he showed a preference with his fine motor skills" says Rebecca Allen-English, of Glen Ellyn, Illlinois, who has an 11-year-old son. Allen-English and her husband are both right-handed, According to The Natural Superiority of the Left-Hander by James T. deKay, if both parents are left-handed, there's a good chance that 50 percent of their children will be left-handed, too. But if neither parent is a lefty, the probability shrinks to only 2 percent. While that puts Allen-English's son in the minority, it's still clear that genetics play a strong role in handedness -- a concrete genetic connection wasn't discovered until 2007, when geneticist Dr. Clyde Francks found a gene on the male side that contributes to left-handedness.

Fortunately, there has never been a better time to be left-handed. Life is now made easier by tools such as left hand?friendly school supplies (pencil grips, tri-tip crayons, and scissors), and you can set up a workspace that accommodates left-handed tasks. If your child is interested in music as a hobby, left-handed guitars are available. If you can't predict what may hinder your child, try to see things from your child's perspective. "Practice doing everyday things with your left hand. That is really like putting the shoe on the other foot!" says Deb Graham, M.S., a special education expert in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, who works with left-handed children. So whether you're a left- or right-handed parent, recognize the opportunities and the challenges of raising a left-handed child. Read on for our advice on how to help your child grow into a strong, unique, and secure left-handed adult.

Praise Special Traits and Qualities

Make left-handedness feel like a blessing instead of a curse by treating it as one thing that makes your child distinct and special. Dr. Sonkin recalls that his parents were very supportive and that this went a long way in his development. "I remember they were kind of proud of my left-handedness. They had an intuitive sense that it was connected to my creativity and that was something they valued." Although words like distinct and special may seem like synonyms for different and unusual, they have very different connotations to a young child's ear. Usually, if the left hand is more dominant than the right, it means the right side of the brain is more dominant than the left, which favors intuition, emotion, imagination, creativity, and holistic thinking. So if your left-handed child is an artistic, creative, and imaginative, it's perfectly okay to praise the perks of being a southpaw. Thinking outside the box is a specialty of lefties, which translates well to problem-solving at school and beyond. Renell Madison-Welch, a mom of 12-year-old Shayley in Agoura, California, says her daughter's creative approach to problem-solving translates very well to her schoolwork. "When it comes to doing math problems, she says she just does whatever works for her and [it] gets her the correct answer. It must be working because math is her best subject!"

Keep Your Child in Good Company

Look to the past to remind your child he is in good company with Benjamin Franklin, who was so proud of his left-handedness that he wrote a whole treatise in favor of the left hand. You can also point out that five recent presidents have been left-handed: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Other amazing innovative performers, scientists, athletes, and musicians who were left-handed include Judy Garland, Jim Henson, Marie Curie, Leonardo Da Vinci, Babe Ruth, and Jimi Hendrix. And powerhouses Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are lefties.

Reorient Your Child

For the most part, being left-handed shouldn't cause a big disturbance in your child's everyday life. Even if your child encounters a righty-oriented obstacle, it will barely seem like a speed bump. She should be able to adjust and move forward. In some cases, however, your child may have minor trouble adapting. Shoe-tying or learning dance-steps are two of the most common obstacles for young children.

This is where your gentle, physical guidance is needed to help your child adjust a grip or practice good positioning. To begin, position yourself opposite your child instead of next to her so she can mirror your movements. Replace left and right in your vocabulary with directional cues, such as "use the hand closest to the door" or "walk toward the window." When teaching shoe-tying, use directions that have nothing to do with left or right, such as the "bunny ears" method, where you make two loops, cross them over, tuck one through and pull to tighten. Let your child decide which hand works best. Reorienting your child and not thinking of things in terms of right and left, right and wrong, correct and incorrect, will go a long way toward easing your child's ability to adapt and thrive, whatever the circumstances. Repeat these cues as necessary to teach correct placement so that eventually right-handed doors won't run over your child's foot as she opens them and her arms won't get crossed every time she opens the fridge.

Make Writing Easier

For most left-handed children, writing is the biggest hurdle. Graham has worked with lefties of all ages to develop good writing techniques and correct bad ones. "First and foremost, it must be understood that lefties do things different than righties -- and that's okay. It's their norm." Graham's number-one rule in teaching kids is that the rules for righties don't apply. Allowing what come naturally to the child is the key. "It's okay to cross a T or J from right to left instead of left to right, draw an S from the bottom up, or dot the i and j first before drawing the letter," Graham says. She explains that these conventions were created for righties to avoid smudging as they write, so as long as your lefty's writing is legible and comfortable, go for it! The goal is comfort and confidence, not struggle.

When it comes to gripping the pencil, experts also agree that the use of lefty pencil grips, three-sided pencils and crayons, and a slant board or 2" binder can help correct many issues, but the most important tool for a left-handed writer is the tri-grip. The tri-grip is the way most righties naturally grip a pencil, with the pencil resting comfortably in the triangle of the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger, about 1? inches above the tip of the pencil. This grip is optimal for control and pressure, and it can go a long way toward helping lefties conquer their writing hurdles. To avoid fatigue, lefties should also keep pencils and crayons sharp so they glide easily across the paper. Parents of older children can ask the teacher's permission to use a smudge-proof erasable pen, which can glide more easily across the paper. Of course, as your child gets older and typing becomes the norm in school and at home, handwriting will become less of a problem.

Karen Foster, a kindergarten teacher in Riverside, Connecticut, is happy to have the lefty advantage when teaching other lefties. "I know firsthand the obstacles we face," she says. One of the most challenging things for lefties is that their hand covers their work as they write it. Not only does it get smudged, it also gets obscured. "I tell my left-handed students that it is okay to move the paper around. Unlike right-handed people, who write with their arm moving away from their body, left-handed people write with their arm moving toward their body. Their own body gets in their way." Graham suggests rotating the paper clockwise, with the top left corner higher than the top right, or moving the paper to the left as the child's hand moves toward his body; this opens up his position and avoids a cramped feeling.

Find a Correct Sports Stance

When it comes to sports, not all lefties are dominated by their left hand, so don't assume that your sporty kid will bat, throw, catch, or play sports as a left-hander. Jerry Brunson-Hollinger, who runs Gym with Jerry in the New York metropolitan area, suggests testing the waters to see what works for your child. "Try both [hands] and see what is more comfortable and natural," he says. "You will definitely be able to tell which is [the] dominant hand."

There are benefits to relying on the left side. According to Brunson-Hollinger and other sports experts, "a lefty has an advantage in some sports because lefties are less common." Taking your opponent by surprise or catching him unprepared can have great benefits. "[Almost] everybody is a righty," Brunson-Hollinger explains, "so when you are used to competing against a righty and you go up against a lefty, it's just different." Gary Fishkind, a tennis pro in Greenwich, Connecticut, agrees. "Sometimes, players go into a match and can't figure out why they're not playing their best. After two or three sets they realize they're playing against a lefty!" Of course, there are pluses for righties in sports, too. It's easier to pick up a righty baseball glove and start playing, while lefties have to bring your own gloves wherever they go.

Whichever side your child chooses, it's important to decide early, Brunson-Hollinger says. "When children are young, you have the ability to help them develop both hands, so whichever they choose, stick with it."

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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