Many parents have great difficulties knowing how to help their left-handed children, especially during their early developmental years.
If both parents are right-handed, this is especially true. We regularly receive calls for help from despairing parents trying to do the best for their child, but not knowing how. This page will hopefully answer the main questions, but you can always call us to discuss your particular issues. If you are worried about your child's development in any way, you should always consult your family doctor.
Left-Handedness Is Natural.
It is built into our genetic makeup. You and your partner created your little left-hander. Even if you are both right-handed, a lefty can be born into the household. We have heard of one right-handed couple where 3 out of their 3 children are lefties!
All it means is that the child's right side of the brain is more dominant than the left, especially in motor control (muscle movement and co-ordination). A lefty will naturally go to do a task with his/her left hand. They can often do it with their right hand, but with a huge amount of effort, concentration and training. Some just can't - they have to use their left hand. Many left-handers are labelled as being awkward, through no fault of their own - they are just trying to do what their body says is natural, but the tools they are using don't suit.
We usually don't see a child's handedness come out strongly until they are around 3 years of age. Before then, we can see glimpses of it in activities but don't be surprised if the preferred hand changes a few times - they're just exploring which is the better hand to use! Some babies will be observed to use their left hand to pull the dummy out of the mouth or to grab the bottle and these may turn out to be the ones who have a very dominant left hand later on.
Left-Handedness Is Not A Handicap.
Our handedness is something that we can't change, although many will try. In years past, children had their left hand tied behind their back (and worse) in an effort to force the child to write with the right hand. This resulted in children with very low confidence and self-esteem, and adults today with very poor handwriting. Our page on Lefty History gives an insight into some of the medieval practices used to change them.
Most of us have learned to compromise, through necessity, as there were no alternatives when we grew up. Today, we'll still use right-handed scissors or golf clubs and still wonder why we have troubles!
Thankfully, we are a little more enlightened as a society today and left-handedness is now accepted and encouraged. Developing a child's strengths is one of the cornerstones in today's education process, and their handedness plays a big part in that. Also, there are now products available that help the left-hander to develop and grow in confidence and skills using their natural abilities that just weren't available before.
A number of excellent books have been written in recent years to help parents and teachers of left-handed children who don't know how to help but want to learn. Books such as 'Loving Lefties' by Jane Healey, 'The Left-Handers Handbook' by Diane Paul and 'The Left-Handed Book' by Simon Langford are easy reading and give great insight into left-handedness. For those who really want to get into it, 'Right Hand, Left Hand' by Chris McManus is a detailed and fascinating read.
Toddler Years (<3).
This is a great age for any parent. The child is exploring the big world around them and is gaining control of the big things coming out of their body (arms & legs!) and the little things on the end (fingers & toes!). They can make noises that others can understand and they recognise familiar faces. They can pick things up, move things around and turn a page in their favourite picture book.
You will start seeing them do some of these activities with their left hand at times and with their right hand at others. Don't dismay - they are just learning about themselves. Don't force them to use the hand that they don't want to use. If you are giving the child an item, put it in the middle in front of them and let them choose what hand to use. Lefties can often do some tasks right-handed, just as some righties can do left-handed tasks. It takes time for them to work out which hand is best and you should start seeing a pattern by the time they are three.
Toddlers wanting to draw should be using pencils and crayons with large barrels as they don't have the muscle control yet to use the normal skinny ones. This is the case whether they are left-handed or right-handed. There are also pencils available where the barrel is a triangular shape, and these have shown to help in developing a good pencil grip that carries through in later years.
Preschool Years (3-5).
By now, your child will be starting to develop some fine motor skills that they will carry though their lives. They are starting to gain control of pencils, pens, crayons and paintbrushes, and you can almost identify what has been drawn! They are starting to form shapes and letters as they draw and write. They love to copy what is around them. You will see them using just one hand now to draw and write, although they might still want to experiment with the other hand. They will also see that they get better results using one hand over the other and that is when the encouragement to develop that strength needs to start. And if it is mainly the left hand they are using, keep reading! But whether he/she is left-handed or right-handed, encourage your child to hold the pencil correctly now and it will save some frustrations later on.
When your child is ready for it, they can commence practicing letter formation. By far the best book of its type we have seen is the first book in the new 'Left Hand Writing Skills' series by Mark & Heather Stewart. Specifically written for the left-handed child, it works with page orientation, posture, pencil grip and letter formation - the four critical elements to a good writing technique for any person, left- or right-handed. Another good basic lettering book is the 'Alf n Bet Learn Their ABC' by Pam Adams where, to encourage the young child, Alf teaches the left-hander to write while Bet teaches a right-hander. Encouragement is paramount to success!
They are cutting with scissors and sometimes not just the piece of paper they were given! It takes a lot of co-ordination to operate a pair of scissors as well as hold the paper still. Look at which hand they use the scissors in. If it is the left hand, you'll need to get a proper pair of left-handed scissors. They're not too hard to find and they're no longer expensive.
(Note: Many scissors found in supermarkets and department stores are labelled as "Suitable for Left or Right Handed Use". Please don't buy them for a lefty as they are all right-handed scissors with handles moulded to be comfortable in the left hand. A left-hander needs to use a pair of scissors that has the top blade on the left side of the pivot, otherwise you can't see where you are cutting. "Normal" scissors have the top blade on the right, left-handed scissors have the top blade on the left. (See our page What Makes It Left-Handed?)
And if your child goes to Day Care or Preschool, ask them to provide the same left-handed items you use at home. This will keep consistency and help build your child's confidence immensely.
Primary School Years (5-12).
What an exciting time! Starting Big School, school uniforms, new friends, new ideas, new music and homework (yuck!). This is also the time when your left-handed child needs extra support, both at school and at home. Consistency is the key.
The large barrel pencils can still be used, especially in the younger years. When progressing to the skinny pencils and ballpoint pens, pencil grips can assist in maintaining a good hold of the pencil or pen. A great confidence-builder is a pen or pencil with a built-in grip - the child knows it is his/her special pen and the other children can't use it! Whatever you do, ensure a good technique and it will make a big difference in years to come with lots of writing and assignments ahead.
While we would never advocate that left-handed children be singled out for special treatment in the classroom, handwriting would be one of the greatest challenges in a child's early school years. As a result, many left-handers will require a little extra assistance as they learn to write. The letters we form today were created for ease and fluency for the majority (right-handers) but create issues for the left-hander. There is a difference, because a left-hander needs to push the pencil across the page and a right-hander pulls it across, which is a smoother action. (See our Left-Handed Writing page for more detail.)
While the use of fountain pens in schools is no longer mandatory, smudging and obscuring work is still a problem for the left-hander to overcome. Paper orientation, posture, grip and the formation of letters are the critical elements to good handwriting that will last a lifetime. All students should be strongly encouraged to hold their pen or pencil correctly to aid in fluent and legible writing but also to prevent early tiring and cramping during the examination essay marathons in high school. The practice of putting a "finger space" between words tangles a left-hander up in knots, so they should be taught to imagine that a capital "O" needs to fit between every word for correct and even spacing.
The new three-part 'Left Hand Writing Skills' series of books by Mark & Heather Stewart takes the student through the four critical components mentioned above and help the left-handed student move from basic lettering formation through to joining letters and fluent handwriting. The Writewell Mat, also created by Mark & Heather Stewart, is a fantastic aid to remind students of the basic components to good handwriting so that good writing habits are formed early.
Schools need to ensure that children can use specific equipment if necessary. Left-handed scissors and pencil sharpeners need to either be supplied by the school or else be allowed to be brought in from home. If brought in from home, make sure they are labelled and that the teacher knows your child has them - they tend not to go missing that way! A second set at home saves the hassle of forgetful children leaving them at home or at school when they are needed at the other.
Some children benefit from using rulers with the markings running the other way - that way, they start at zero and pull the pencil across the page, just like their right-handed classmates. The pencil point doesn't dig in and tear the page.
Discuss your child's left-handedness with his/her teacher early in the year and what you have been doing to help your child. That way, the teacher can continue with the great work you have been doing at home.
Your child's confidence will grow quickly as they realise they can do everything the other children do, even if it is a little differently. Just try not to make too much of a fuss about it. That way, they won't feel as though they are different from the other children in a negative way.
High School and Older (12+).
At this age, your child knows everything and parents know nothing, unless the child can't find the answer (we know this from experience!). As a parent, it is frustrating to see your child's independence grow but be limited by the tools they are using. By now, they should already be using their left-handed scissors, but they may need to progress from the ones they used in Kindergarten! A pair for school and a pair for home is still the best way to go. It's not too late to change the way he/she holds the pen to reduce cramping during the cramming for exams, but it's best done during quieter times before then.
The new challenges occur at home in the kitchen (yes, some children like to cook if given the chance!) and at school in the TAS subjects such as Food Technology, Textiles & Design, Technical Drawing, and the like. Your child's left-handedness needs to be taken into account with both the tools used (can openers, knives, ladles, scissors, T-squares, etc) and in the techniques taught. Ensure the teacher is aware of your child's left-handedness so that the correct tools and techniques can be used in the classroom and the workshop.
Being left-handed is a wonderful gift. Many famous people from all walks of life were left-handed and their lives have become inspirational to many. There are a number of books available that list the famous lefties from around the world and throughout history. For famous Aussie lefties, see our page Famous Australians.
Above all, enjoy parenthood!