Lefty? Righty? Leave it alone?
June 2, 2014 7:35 AM   Subscribe

We are starting to suspect our five 1/2 year old son may actually be a lefty. Do we ask / try to switch him over, or leave it alone?

As our son was growing, we could never determine his handedness - he would switch off regularly between hands when feeding, playing, etc. Neither hand ever seemed to dominate. Not wanting to influence him, we mostly left him alone about it - so long as he was using the crayon/spoon/toy, we wouldn't suggest a switch to the other hand unless he was looking like he was struggling. Possibly because of this (or possibly this is the underlying reason for his ambidextrousness), when he started school a couple years ago, teachers noticed he had significant trouble with his grip (along with a couple of other issues) and recommended he be evaluated for Occupational Therapy. He has been in OT regularly since the evaluation, and is mostly caught up with his class. His left hand had more issues than his right, so when they worked with him on drawing and writing, he was taught right-handed - with our consent.

The more we watch him, though, the more we think he's actually a lefty. When he picks things up, he favors his left, when he throws or bounces a ball, and often when he eats. Yesterday I asked if he could write his name with his left hand, just to see, and he picked the pencil up with the correct grip with no trouble. The writing, while sloppier than with his right hand, was not only legible, it looked pretty standard for him.

I know there have been lots of studies showing interfering with natural handedness is a bad idea, and we don't want to do anything that would mess him up, especially when he's doing so much better in OT. Should we speak with his teachers and therapist about this? Or just leave it alone?

Possibly relevant details: His father is left-handed, I'm a righty. While his writing is great for his age, he still really can't draw without coaching or copying from a book with help (this may be appropriate for his age, I don't know what drawing milestones are, if there are any -- his pictures are often the least-good in his class, but he's also one of the youngest kids). He starts first grade next year.
posted by Mchelly to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I know there have been lots of studies showing interfering with natural handedness is a bad idea, and we don't want to do anything that would mess him up, especially when he's doing so much better in OT. Should we speak with his teachers and therapist about this? Or just leave it alone?

Don't mess with it. Leave it alone.
posted by kinetic at 7:40 AM on June 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, man, jeez, definitely DO NOT try to switch him! Handedness is encoded on a pretty deep neurological level; attempting to bypass that just ain't good.

Side note: I was unable to tell FOR SURE whether my kid was a lefty or a righty until he was in first or second grade... some kids take a while to work it out. Also, my kid is STILL unable to draw legible pictures (at age nine)... I wouldn't worry about that particular milestone.

I'd probably casually bring it up with his teachers and OT, just so they're aware that he may be a lefty and do not attempt to cajole him into doing tasks the typical righty way under the assumption that he's doing them "wrong".
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:41 AM on June 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

That's a tough one - you don't want him to fall behind and feel 'dumb' just because his dexterity isn't with the rest of the class. That's a hole that would be difficult to dig himself out of.

I used to think handedness was super important, but I don't think you'd be overwriting some innate aspect of his person. I don't think handedness is a Big Deal provided he isn't shamed for using one or the other.("Right hand good, left hand bad!!") I have family from the old country that was forced to use their right hand; as an adult they do everything with their left hand except for writing. (They were shamed about it, and resented it of course.)

But if he's doing ok with his left hand then I would just stick with it. There's worse things than sloppy writing.

FWIW I am also capable of using both hands to write and it comes in.... handy! So why not both, when he gets a little older (7 or 8).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:43 AM on June 2, 2014

I'm a lefty. I think it sucks to try to switch people from something that feels right to them. I just think you have to be careful with the penmanship stuff - I always had terrible handwriting and so have all the other lefties I know. The paper and stuff just isn't set up right for us.
posted by sweetkid at 7:49 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

People, are you reading the same question? She's not asking if it's BAD to be a leftie, or if the kid being leftie means he won't have good penmanship or drawing skills, nor is the kid already determined to be one thing and she's thinking of switching it to something else. The kid is already had some issues with handedness and she's worried they guided him to the wrong one -- if so, should they re-open that can of worms or just see what happens?
posted by barnone at 7:50 AM on June 2, 2014 [27 favorites]

When you say switch him, do you mean encouraging him to write with the hand that feels comfortable? I support that, but suggest you discuss with the OT and teachers. I think some people may read this as you continuing to push the right hand. It's a little unclear. If he's happy with the right hand and teachers support it, no problem. But I'd consult with professionals and ask your son too.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:50 AM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know, I don't see the harm in bringing it up with his occupational therapist, just to see what they say. They might have additional insights. If his writing is fine, you might just want to stick with him using his right, but maybe he's ambidextrous? Is your only concern his drawing ability?

I might try giving him lots of non-drawing art projects this summer - like clay, weaving, sand art - and see if he has a preference there? Maybe he writes better with his right, but prefers art with his left? It might be good/fun for him to try different mediums and different hands. Sometimes I like to draw with my non-dominant hand, just to see how it feels.
posted by umwhat at 7:53 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would speak to the therapist about it. Perhaps there are some additional screening exercises they can do to help him figure out how he's most comfortable.

FWIW, my son writes with his left hand and does everything else (eating and sports) with his right.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:53 AM on June 2, 2014

I would tell teh therapist about your observations and let them take over from there, seeing if he adapts faster to left hand grippage and whatnot. Don't actively switch, but definitely mention that he seems to prefer the left hand for many things and is able to write with it.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:53 AM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, in case I wasn't clear -- he was taught as a righty because they had to pick a hand, he wasn't giving any indication of his own natural inclination, and the right hand had a stronger grip, so it was easier for him to hold the pencil with it. We were fine with that.

But now that his grip has improved in both hands and he knows what he's doing, is it worth suggesting - not forcing - a switch to left (through teachers / OT), in case that is actually easier or better for him? Or do we stick with the righthandedness that he's already begun, so as not to impose something new?

I'm asking not just for writing - which he's doing fine at righthanded (except for drawing, which might have nothing to do with handedness) - but also because he loves sports but isn't all that athletic (he gets that from both sides, ugh) - and if he'll do better at throwing/catching with his left, but no one suggests it because everyone thinks he's a righty, then maybe it's worth stepping in?
posted by Mchelly at 7:58 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that handedness is binary and absolute. I throw and catch left-handed; I bat right-handed at cricket; I play guitar left-handed; I write right-handed, though that's probably because the nuns nudged me that way and my grip's non-standard.

Writing's more of a learned skill than throwing and catching, and you can't roll back the clock on the work that's been done, but I'd nth telling the therapist and taking them take it from there, while looking for cues on more instinctive activities for which side he favours.
posted by holgate at 8:02 AM on June 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's definitely something the OT should be made aware of. I'm not sure I'd involve the teacher at this stage, since it's so close to the end of the school year. There's not much that could be accomplished at school in the next couple of weeks, so it would probably be more of a headache than it's worth. Summer would be a great opportunity for the OT to re-evaluate.

I have a friend who, by his own account, has always been naturally ambidextrous. He's always looked at it as a gift.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:03 AM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

and if he'll do better at throwing/catching with his left, but no one suggests it because everyone thinks he's a righty, then maybe it's worth stepping in?

Yeah, i think this is a good suggestion. If he likes sports and wants to improve, it's possible this switch will do him a world of difference. It's certainly worth a try.
posted by sweetkid at 8:09 AM on June 2, 2014

he was taught as a righty because they had to pick a hand,

Wha......? My kid is 5 1/2 and has shown a fairly strong preference for left handedness that has come and gone off and on since he was about 3. But he is most definitely left handed for writing and eating. His OTs never had to "pick a hand." In fact, his constantly switching hands meant that he had some problems with hand strength, not with handedness. And my son also has issues crossing his mid-line. What that means for him is if a writing or eating utensil is on the left side of his body, he'll pick it up with his left hand and use his left hand. If it's on the right, he'll pick it up with his right hand and use his right hand. His teachers and OTs have started putting writing and eating utensils in the middle to encourage him to a) cross his mid-line but b) to also be able to use the hand that feels more natural to him. Picking a hand would definitely have contributed negatively to the mid-line problem.

I would definitely reach out to his teacher and OT and say that you have noticed a left-handed preference for many activities. Ask if they have noticed the same and then consult further as necessary. But....I can't imagine why on earth an OT would have had to have "picked a hand" at the outset of therapy when OT is supposed to in part help kids with fine motor struggles LEARN their own handedness...........
posted by zizzle at 8:16 AM on June 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

And definitely if your kid is getting ESY services, bring it up with this summer OT, who may be different from the school year OT.
posted by zizzle at 8:20 AM on June 2, 2014

I grew up like this and in one of the great ironies of my life, the one year I wasn't in Catholic school (age 5), the school "taught" me to be right-handed*. Which is to say I write with my right hand. Except I do it with the typical lefty hook (teachers used to call other teachers in from the hall to see) and do almost everything else left-handed. When someone asks, I describe myself thusly: "Do you know what ambidextrous means? I'm the opposite of that." It's not the end of the world or anything, but I've never been able to play golf or tennis or shoot a decent game of pool because I can never decide which hand feels more correct.

I'm not a child development specialist and I don't think my experience is a universal truth, but until it becomes a problem, I'd let it sort itself out.

* Mainly by spinning me around on a skateboard-like thing until I got dizzy and then having me write Right This Minute to see which hand I picked while I was half in the bag.
posted by yerfatma at 8:28 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, most left handers are ambidextrous to some degree. It's not uncommon to see this "late" hand preference and for them to continue to switch between hands for tasks other than writing. Anectotally, I'm left handed for writing (from a paternal history of left handers), but learned a bunch of other stuff with both or with my right. Most things with my legs, I'm more right dominant. I also just decided to learn some things right handed because it made it easier on me or the people teaching me. I knit right handed because my mom was having a really hard time figuring out how to reverse what she knew how to do to teach me. I learned guitar becasue the fingering was going to be with my dominant hand anyway. I cut with my right hand because there were never enough left-handed scissors at school.

Neurologically speaking, right hand dominance and its being kind of the "default" handedness for most people is rooted in the fact that our brains have evolved to heavily favor language development. This makes the left hemisphere (the one that controls the right side of the body) more dominant and more likely to emerge as the side favored for motor activities. In some cases, when things go off track in early neural development (e.g. a prenatal stroke or some kind of developmental disability), the brain reorganizes itself to make up for damage or inefficiencies in the dominant hemisphere and this leads to left handedness.

More often, though, this is something that seems to be inherited, as seems to be the case in your son given that his dad is a lefty, and is perfectly adaptive. There is some evidence that it may even lead to a slightly "better" brain in that both hemispheres develop some degree of dominance, and maybe language and other skills are not so stricly held in one region or another. This gives you more flexibility in how different regions communicate with one another, and if, heaven forbid, some injury happens later, like a stroke or something, your brain has some flexibility in using regions that aren't injured to work around the damage.

So very long winded, but I'd talk to your son's OT about what you're noticing and how to support his natural preferences for using different hands for different activities.
posted by goggie at 8:30 AM on June 2, 2014

My (mostly) left-handedness went pretty much unremarked upon in school at at home, lucky for me. This was the 50s-60s. I just did what came naturally and ended up ambidextrous in batting and using eating utensils, right-handed in using scissors and throwing and left-handed for everything else.

The only time I ever thought any of this was a big deal was the time at about age 12 I read a newspaper article suggesting that left-handedness might be caused by "mild brain damage." (Again, this was the 60s.) I thought, wow, I don't feel brain damaged! For a week or so afterward I tried writing with my right hand, but that was too hard and I ended up deciding that, if this is brain damage, I'm okay with it.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 8:36 AM on June 2, 2014

Has he had an eye exam? My son had some of that same type of stuff going on with fine motor skills at age five, handwriting, using scissors, etc. It turned out to be a rather serious vision issue that thankfully we caught in time, and he has fighter pilot vision today. However, had we not caught it he was about 2 years from permanently losing sight in one eye.
posted by COD at 8:37 AM on June 2, 2014

Like yerfatma, I'm ambisinistral: cack-handed with both hands. I used to be able to write (badly) with both hands, but now I'm stuck with the right (headaches ensue if I try with the left). It just kind of ended up that way.

It sure beats the daily beatings that my left-handed great-grandfather got in Scottish primary school, tho ...
posted by scruss at 8:42 AM on June 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

My Dad was pretty ambidextrous. Despite the best efforts of 1950's teachers. He wrote like shit with both hands. Cut paper with his left, golfed right handed. He was a chef and could chop with either hand but favoured his left. Sounds like your son is much the same. Let him pick, don't correct him if he want's to do something lefty, which it sounds like you don't. I really think that's the best way to go. My brother was a lefty but didn't really settle down into it until he was about 8. Luckily you have the same set up where people can show him how to do things with either hand so he will avoid a lot of that confusion. Buy him any tools he needs in both handiness, safety scissors probably being the biggy at his age and let him work it out for himself, don't worry he will.
posted by wwax at 8:55 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd say leave it alone. One of my sons writes left-handed but can use either hand to play sports. He has zero issues. Since he was little he went back and forth on what hand he used and we never forced him to choose.

I would only intervene if he had an issue with handwriting, but I'd do that for my right-handed child as well (they are twins btw).
posted by jraz at 8:56 AM on June 2, 2014

I would just reinforce that he doesn't have to conform to being "right handed" or "left handed" the way other people are, and it is totally okay for him to switch or do some things like a righty and some things like a lefty if he feels like it.

People consider right-handedness or left-handedness a big part of their identity, but make sure he understands that this is because most of us have no choice, we really truly can't do things very well with our non-dominant hand.
posted by desuetude at 9:32 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

About possibly switching him, I would ask the therapist their thoughts.

For what it's worth, my brother writes lefty and does most sports things righty. It was explained to me that he does sports things righty because he was taught by his right-handed father. So maybe there is a certain degree of that coming to play since his father is a lefty and you are a righty? Maybe he is just imitating both of you? In any case, I would ask the therapist about it.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 9:33 AM on June 2, 2014

My oldest turns 5 in 1 week, he's like yours in terms of handedness. He does not have a preference for hands. He seems to mostly be favoring writing with his right hand, but that's very recent. I've mostly just let him be, and every so often asked him if he wanted to try with his left hand, since I know most of the prompting (direct and indirect) will be to use his right. We also let him choose on doing everything else, as it is he bats lefty, but catches righty in baseball.

With your son, given the OT, I would definitely talk with his teachers and therapists to get their opinions on what to do. Make the arguments you made here, but listen to what they say, as they do have the experience. For everything besides handwriting, keep letting him choose.
posted by katers890 at 9:34 AM on June 2, 2014

I'm ambidextrous and was about your son's age when my parents and teachers suggested I use my right hand to write with since my left hand grip never developed. To be fair, my right hand grip never fully developed but it was the better of the two and was the only way I was going to progress in school (this was the early '80s in rural Virginia). I'm still ambidextrous when it comes to most things (cooking, painting, using a mouse) but writing and throwing I can only do right handed. My parents and teachers just let me just figure out what worked best for me and I've taken it from there ever since.

It sounds like one of your main concern is with future athletic achievement, which is understandable. Have you started him a tee ball league yet? If so, that might be a good way to get him to show which hand he's more comfortable with in terms of catching and throwing since most of those gloves can be used with either hand. Some kids that write right handed will gravitate towards throwing left handed and vice versa and will start to show that they can or can't develop coordination with that handedness.

Billy Wagner, a former MLB closer with over 400 saves, was born right handed but learned to pitch left handed due to an arm injury. Pablo Sandoval, Bryce Harper, and Josh Hamilton all write and bat left handed (switch in the case of Sandoval) but learned to throw right handed so they wouldn't be relegated to the outfield or pitching. Handedness is something that can be, and often is, learned and changed.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 9:42 AM on June 2, 2014

I'm ambidexterous, but I'm handed for different tasks. I use tools ambidextrously, I play sports left handed, I write right-handed.

I think if you let him choose which hand he wants to use for what, that it should be okay. A lot of handedness is merely practice. For example, we learn to type or play piano ambidextrously because we need both hands for the task.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:03 AM on June 2, 2014

WHY would you want to try to interfere with handedness???

He could be ambidextrous, and may naturally prefer different hands for different tasks. Maybe instead he really is a lefty, and just currently writes better with his right hand because that's how he was taught. Perhaps he should instead be taught to write lefty.

Speak with the Occupational Therapist about all this.
posted by tckma at 10:03 AM on June 2, 2014

Switching handedness is pretty much seen as something out of the dark ages nowadays. My aunt was a lefty and was forced back in the day, and I'm a natural lefty that is perfectly comfortable using both hands on for mousework, but left dominant otherwise.

I would just....ask him? His dexterity may just be lagging a little behind his peers, especially since it was futzed with at an early age. This is one of those things that I'd probably just let his preferences dictate how it goes. If he switches from hand to hand every week, or writes with his right/draws with his left...whatever works for him!

Maybe try drawing together, first with both your left hands, next with both your rights. I find most people think it's hilarious how badly you draw with the non-dominant, and you might be able to suss something out of really silly drawings of cats or whatever. Maybe ask what hand he likes more when he's doing it. Bonus because since you have both a lefty and righty in the home, there will hopefully be less pressure (implied because "I wanna be like daddy!", not even forced pressure) than if you were both righties or something.
posted by aggyface at 11:51 AM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd bring it up with the therapist - they are trained in this sort of thing, and will hopefully be the best advocate in what works for your child.

Adding to the chorus, I'm fairly ambidextrous as well. Right handed - writing, golf, baseball, throwing. Left handed - basketball shot, hockey. Now, I think my basketball shot would be better today if I learned it as a right handed shot from an early age, but I spent a lot of my time self taught in the backyard and shooting left handed was a developed skill that twenty years later just feels normal because that's how I've always done it. It is rather silly that I switch between golf and hockey right to left, but same thing, building off an early learned skill.
posted by shinynewnick at 12:19 PM on June 2, 2014

it is totally okay for him to switch or do some things like a righty and some things like a lefty if he feels like it.

And the approach to take in these situations is that if a particular "handed" activity is causing frustration, then it's fine to switch and try with the other hand. It's sometimes difficult to untangle the standard learning curve with the frustrations of doing it wrong-handed, but that's what the OT is there for.
posted by holgate at 12:55 PM on June 2, 2014

and if he'll do better at throwing/catching with his left, but no one suggests it because everyone thinks he's a righty, then maybe it's worth stepping in?

This is interesting, anecdote time! I am left-handed. Always was, always will be. However, the only things I consistently do with my left hand are write, and brush my teeth. I'm somewhat ambidextrous with kitchen equipment, and play all sports and instruments right-handed. I have terrible hand-writing, scissor-cutting, and knitting skills.

As a child, I was always setting the table "backwards" and doing a lot of other things that really screamed "left handed" - so why, you ask, do I do most things right-handed? Because society, basically.

The world is built for right-handers, when people are teaching a child something, they teach them the right-handed way. When you pick up a pair of scissors, you basically have to use them right-handed or they won't work. I believe - completely - that the things I do right-handed are that way because I was taught to do them that way.

Sometimes, I get weirdly pissed off that my natural left-handedness was quashed this way. Sometimes I'm grateful cause finding left handed shit like guitars etc is really hard. Mostly, I don't really care. I do enjoy checking in with other left-handed people, cause my experience is that there are very few "true" lefties, who do nothing at all right-handed.

So in terms of it being neurologically hard-wired, not true - not true at all. Also, if it helps put your mind at ease, I catch and throw perfectly fine with my right-handed, and was sporty and fine with stuff like that as a kid.
posted by smoke at 6:25 PM on June 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Adding onto what smoke said, my left-handed cousin was made to write right-handed in school. It did cause him some stress at the time, but now he does everything but write with his left hand, and he can draw well with either.

On the other hand (har har) I'm the most right-handed person I know, but I learned to use scissors left-handed as a kid. I guess our school had blown its scissors budget for the decade or something, because all our classroom sets were old and broken and there only seemed to ever be left-handed ones left when I got to the front of the room. So, I adapted. It's a pretty weird, specific thing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:37 PM on June 2, 2014

My 12 year old daughter is a southpaw. I know this isn't a huge deal but it's always been something of a surprise to me because I never knew any other lefties & it's not something I ever even gave thought to when I was pregnant.

I can't think of one situation, in 12 years of parenting her, where it has been an issue. Well, I take that back...teaching her to tie her shoes was a b!itch because she did it backwards than a righty. She didn't fully grasp it until her 2nd grade teacher, also a lefty, helped her nail it down. The only other "issue" we have had is she hates spiral notebooks. Oddly enough, there's only one company in the US, based in Texas I think, who sells opposite bound spiral notebooks & if you're fortunate enough to live in a city where they are located, I know there's a store that only sells left-handed stuff but I can't think of the name although I'm sure someone above probably mentioned it.

Oh, & she always breaks our manual can openers. Every. Single. Time. (Ok, so I lied, there's obviously a few situations where it's been a factor but definitely not anything I would consider bothersome.)
posted by peacelovecoffee at 8:08 PM on June 5, 2014

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