I watched a film once where the main character was completely ambidextrous. He could write a poem with one hand while drawing a picture with the other. How I would have loved to have a skill like that. So why is it that teachers push kids to choose a dominant hand?
Why is one-handed dominance preferred?
The reason teachers and OTs will encourage a child into one-handed dominance are predominantly for practical reasons in the classroom – the sooner they choose a hand, the sooner they perfect their control with that hand, and the sooner they will learn to write quickly and efficiently.
I strongly disagree with this.
The majority of children will naturally slip into a right or left dominance at around 7 or 8 years of age and shouldn’t be forced into writing exercises before the body is naturally ready. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit in with the school curriculum, which requires kids to be practising pre-writing skills from as early as 3 or 4.
Very very few children are truly ambidextrous (and usually this only happens when one hand is injured for a period of time or some other environmental factor), but there are a fair amount who are mixed-handed (i.e. They will tend to use one hand for certain tasks and another hand for different tasks e.g. Writing with the right hand and cutting with the left hand).
The schools will try to discourage this as sometimes it slows kids down as they’re still trying to decide which hand to use for what and not getting on with the task at hand.
How to help your child
There are some things that will be helped by choosing a dominant hand. For example crossing the midline or bilateral integration. These can easily be included in a child’s life with some simple exercises to ensure that they don’t miss out on any brain integration that may come from choosing one hand as dominant and using the other as a helper.
For example, pushing a car around a track, holding the car with one hand and the track with the other; reaching over the body to grab something on the opposite side of the body; holding a paper with one hand and cutting it with the other; or my personal favourite, playing “Twister”. In OT they will essentially do these kinds of exercises with a child, but it will cost you. If you hop onto Google you can find plenty of exercises like these and do them yourself. You can have a lot of fun and your child never needs to wonder about why he/she is in “therapy”.
How good is mixed-handed
Most researchers on the subject agree that it is useful for everyone to sometimes try using their less-preferred hand for tasks normally done with the dominant hand as it improves brain function and dexterity! Being mixed-handed can also have great advantages in sports like baseball and snooker where you can switch hands to get a better shot.
The only real concern with a child who isn’t naturally finding a dominant hand is a learning disorder known as dysgraphia. Dysgraphia involves problems with motor skills. This disorder would not only affect their ability to choose a hand to write with but would also manifest with other noticeable problems such as struggling with the concepts of right and left, difficulty catching a ball or skipping or even basic motor movements like walking and jumping. It is unlikely that your child would have problems of this nature without you noticing them. They definitely would be picked up in an assessment with an OT if you choose to have one.
The other thing to consider is that your child may be gifted.
Around 48% of gifted children are ambidextrous at some stage of their development.
Take a look at some of the other criteria for gifted kids. If you think your child is, then it is definitely worth getting an IQ test done as gifted children do need additional stimulation in order for them to develop optimally.
- Unusual alertness, even in infancy
- Excellent memory
- Learn to speak early and have an unusually large vocabulary and complex sentence structure for their age
- Understand word nuances, metaphors and abstract ideas
- Enjoy solving problems, especially with numbers and puzzles
- Often self-taught reading and writing skills as a preschooler
- Highly sensitive
- Thinking is abstract, complex, logical, and insightful
- Idealism and sense of justice at an early age
- Longer attention span and intense concentration if something interests them
- Preoccupied with own thoughts—daydreamer
- Learn basic skills quickly and with little practice (1-3 repetitions)
- Asks probing questions
- Wide range of interests (or extreme focus in one area)
- Highly developed curiosity
- Interest in experimenting and doing things differently
- Puts idea or things together that are not typical
- Keen and/or unusual sense of humour
- Desire to organize people/things through games or complex schemas
- Vivid imaginations (and imaginary playmates when in preschool)
Support your child
If your child is still in preschool, he/she may just not be ready to choose a dominant hand and making a child ‘wrong’ for this seems unfair and unnecessary. Ultimately you will have to make a decision based on your own child whether your child would benefit from having an assessment or if it is worth waiting to see what naturally develops.
Please remember to trust yourself. You know your child better than any teacher or therapist and if you feel that their opinion is incorrect, trust that. You can always get a second opinion or even just hold off on getting an opinion at all. Whether your child’s ambidexterity is a gift or a disorder is often determined by how it is handled, and that is up to you as the parent.
Mia Von Scha is a Transformational Parenting Coach and children’s author. Mia focuses on helping parents to be the change they want to see in their kids.
Also, make sure to read Mia’s previous blog on A Fresh Start to the New School Year