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Should my ambidextrous 6-year-old choose a writing hand?
Handedness is a fascinating topic, and one on which there is still a great deal of disagreement. It is often pointed out that we live in a right-handed world and left-handers have to adjust. Even our words for “left” reveal the folklore associated with left-handedness. For example, in English it is “left versus right, with “right” being a synonym for correct. The word for left in Latin is “sinister,” and we know what that word connotes. In French the word is “gauche,” which we usually translate as awkward or clumsy. So we know that, throughout history, people have looked askance at left-handed people.

But it is certainly not a handicap. For example, in the 1992 presidential election, if anyone asked me whom I thought would be elected president, I always replied breezily, “A left-hander.” Bush, Clinton and Perot were all left-handed.

Many neurologists today feel that a sharp dichotomy between “left-handed” and “right-handed” does not adequately describe the situation. Rather, they feel that handedness lies along a continuum, with people generally being “mostly left-handed” or “mostly right-handed.” Certainly I am one of those people closer to the middle than to any extreme. I do many things with my left hand but write and eat only with my right. And don’t forget all those people who are truly ambidextrous. There appears to be a surplus of them among athletes, where skills with both hands are important.

I have never encountered the behavior you describe in your son—that is, not crossing the midline. It is probably just a habit and doesn’t represent any sort of neurological problem, but I really don’t know.

Maybe that habit offers a suggestion as to how you might cope. If you give him paper to write or draw on, place it clearly to the right side of his body rather than directly in front of his body. You want to see whether, when no midline crossing is required, he writes or draws totally with his right hand. Later, do exactly the same thing with the paper in a position to encourage his use of the left hand and not requiring a crossover. Evaluate informally the quality of the two productions: Is the right or left better? If you can successfully do this several times you might get a better idea of which hand to encourage and whether the midline crossing is really a factor in his refusal to choose. Observe carefully as he eats, gets dressed, turns the TV on or off and hits the light switch and you will get a firmer idea of which hand he really prefers.

As for whether you want to side with your son or his teacher, I would always side with your son, at least at first. But I wouldn’t hesitate to tell him that it is better to choose one hand and go with it most of the time. His teacher isn’t going to hurt him if she suggests gently that he stay with one hand. Only if she does it in an unpleasant and threatening manner is it likely to frustrate him. And don’t hesitate to ask him questions like, “Which way does it feel better – when you write with your left hand or your right?” If you get an answer suggest, “Maybe that’s the hand you should go with.”

Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education