Chapter One: Left-Handness: A Brief Journey of Discovery
Imagine for a moment that you've landed on a planet meticulously designed to fit the needs of a privileged majority -- a majority of which you are not a member. Then imagine that the difficulty you experience in trying to learn and master even the most fundamental skills is met with bewilderment, resistance, and anger. Add to that the natural human distrust of anything that differs from the norm and mix in the ample share of ridicule you are bound to receive from your peers. Oh yeah, and don't forget to throw in the emotional impact of your parents' and teachers' misguided efforts to "correct" your seemingly abnormal behavior. Getting uncomfortable? Well, we're not finished yet.
Imagine further that you are taught from the moment you land on this strange planet to ignore or struggle against your natural inclinations and that those few who take the time to attempt to teach you to use tools that were designed for them are, at best, unaware of the difficulties you're facing. Now imagine that it's not you we're talking about at all but your child.
Although this may sound overly dramatic, it was, not so long ago, an all-too-real depiction of the dilemma of the left-handed individual in an overwhelmingly right-handed society.
Fortunately, there have been dramatic changes in many areas. Many manufacturers now make left-handed versions of what were once problematic products, such as scissors, cameras, school desks, and certain musical instruments. Teachers, educators, occupational therapists, and child psychologists are becoming increasingly aware of laterality and the issues that are often related to it. There are Web sites, clubs, magazines, and shops devoted to all things left-handed, including fun and useful products and lists of successful lefties in virtually every field. Plus, it seems as though something new is learned about the human brain every day. As a parent, the more you know about your left-handed child, the better off both of you will be. And there is so much to learn about your precious lefty!
Although the situation is improving, there is still a lot of work to be done. There are still many people who don't recognize the different needs and strengths of left- versus right-handers -- parents, teachers, coaches, and even therapists who are frustrated or concerned because they don't understand why a child is having difficulty with one area or another. In spite of the shelves full of books about virtually every other aspect of child rearing, far too many parents and educators remain uneducated about this important aspect of their children's lives.
But before we get back to the future, let's take a look at where we've come from.
Myths and Misconceptions Debunked
Throughout recorded history, left-handers the world over have been the objects of scorn and fear. They have been characterized as outcasts, degenerates, and communists and perceived as inferior, clumsy, unlucky, sinister, and even satanic (the Latin term for left-handedness is sinistral). The devil is most often depicted as being left-handed, and in Buddhism the road to Nirvana is said to split into two paths: the left, or "the wrong way," and the right, or the "path to enlightenment." In the earliest plays, the villains always entered from the left side of the stage.
In the 1600s, in both Europe and the American colonies, women accused of witchcraft were publicly stripped and examined. Moles or blemishes found on the left side of the body of an accused witch were considered absolute proof of guilt. This may sound ridiculous today, but it is part of a deep-rooted tradition. English writer and political philosopher H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, believed the left side of the brain was larger than the right -- a theory long since proven incorrect. Actually, we now know that some areas of the brain are larger on the right than on the left, and vice versa. For instance, the area on the left side of the brain that is responsible for processing speech is larger than the equivalent area on the right.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, left-handed children were often beaten until they learned to use their right hands. And in some African and Asian cultures, the left hand is still considered the "dirty" hand because of its function in personal hygiene. It is not easy to struggle against such long-standing traditions.
The custom of buttoning women's clothing on the opposite side of men's is a holdover from the Victorian age, when pampered noblewomen were dressed by their right-handed maids. And there are two divergent theories regarding the wearing of the wedding ring on the left hand. One ascribes the custom to the early Egyptians, who believed that despite the left hand's supposed flaws, placing the ring on this hand brought it nearer to the heart. Another attributes it to the Greeks and Romans, who purportedly wore the rings to ward off the evil associated with the left hand.
There have been a few rare exceptions to this pattern, such as the Incas, who revered left-handers, and the Zuni tribe, who believed left-handedness signified good luck. But even these seemingly positive views of the left hand are based on superstition and ancient ritual.
These days few people consciously regard others as evil or sinister on the basis of the hand they use to throw a ball or hold a pencil. There is little serious discussion of witchcraft, and thanks to hard science, we no longer have to guess about the size or weight of the brain.
Modern hygiene enables us to use both of our hands for any number of disparate activities without fretting about contamination or propriety. Most women now button their own clothes -- we seem to have adjusted to the vestigial configuration of buttons quite well. And the tradition of wearing a wedding ring has outlived the myths that brought it about.
But although most of these myths have been dispelled, there has been some carryover, both in our attitudes and in our language.
The "Right" Language
The subtler expressions of our prejudices, those we are unaware of, are often the most insidious. These prejudices are deeply imbedded in our language and are frequently expressed without a second thought. A left-handed compliment is one that carries with it a negative message; if you are described as having two left feet, you are probably not going to win the Saturday-night tango contest. But right is...well, it's right. What more could anyone possibly want than to be right? Right?
The French word for left-handedness is gauche, which also means "awkward," "clumsy," or "lacking social polish." In German, links, the term for left, also means "awkward." The Italian word for left-handed, mancini, means "crooked" or "deformed." The Portuguese term for left, canhoto, means feeble or weak.
For some reason, evil spirits tend to reside over the left shoulder (and have a strong aversion to airborne salt). Pouring wine with the left hand is believed to bring bad luck, and a left-handed toast is said to be insincere or malevolent.
In the Australian slang expression for left-handedness, molly-dooker, molly is slang for a young woman and dooker is slang for one who fights with the fists, whereas in the comparable English expression cack-handed, cack is defined as excrement. For some, even the relatively benign term southpaw, a term originally coined to describe left-handed pitchers, may be insulting. If this doesn't seem to make sense, think for a moment of how up in arms you would be if these epithets were used to describe your race or religion.
Frustrations: sdrawkcaB sI dlroW yM
Scissors, cameras, tools, and musical instruments are among the list of everyday items that have traditionally been designed for the right-handed majority. Left-handed writing, if not taught by teachers sensitive to the way lefties do things, can be deeply frustrating and occasionally humiliating (more on this later).
Playing cards are difficult to read, and power saws are dangerous, if not impossible to use. Apple corers and potato peelers are major annoyances, and attempting to use a standard can opener can tie your fingers up in knots.
As you can see, a great profusion of tools and activities have been neatly fashioned for the comfort and convenience of right-handers. If you're a member of the right-handed majority, this is a perfect time to try a little experiment. Strap your wristwatch to your right wrist and then try to adjust the time. Clumsy? Hmmm.
That's not because your left hand is not your dominant hand; it is because the crown is thoughtfully positioned on the right side of the watch to make it easily accessible to a right-handed person.
If you're still harboring doubts, take a standard pair of scissors in your left hand, a sheet of newspaper in your right, and do some snipping. Frustrating, isn't it?
Again, it isn't your lateral preference that's stifling you; it's the design of the scissors. Who wouldn't appear clumsy when fighting the laws of physics? Who wouldn't feel a blow to confidence, and, in time, self-esteem? All of this can be magnified in childhood, particularly when your peers, who have been given the same tools to work with, appear to be so effortlessly competent.
One thing parenting experts and parents agree on is the importance of self-esteem. Children learn very early who they are. Numerous studies prove it, and logic and experience confirm that how you feel about yourself will play a significant role in determining your behavior now and in the future.
If you are a parent or plan to be one, you've probably already studied and made educated decisions regarding everything from what to eat when trying to conceive to breast-feeding to "normal" developmental milestones to college funds. The critical issue of lateral preferences deserves the same level of commitment. Simply put, by learning about handedness, you can help fortify your child's emotional well-being.
We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on toys made to promote and foster brain development. We play Mozart and engage in all sorts of games and activities hoping to stimulate our children's minds. We learn the guidelines of normal motor development, but we are uneducated on the subject of handedness.
As parents, or parents-to-be, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to make your child's journey a pleasant and fruitful one, and to make this occasionally hostile planet more accommodating to its left-handed children. By educating yourself and by learning how to determine and support your child's natural lateral preferences, you can offer him or her a brighter future and help dispel the myths and misconceptions we've all been burdened with for far too long.
The Good News
There is far more good news than bad about being left-handed. The long-standing prejudices are slowly being stripped of their power by logic and science, and there are new products available every day. Many left-handed children may never perceive their handedness as a problem; on the contrary, they will view themselves as special. And this is as it should be. Lefties are part of a special club, and we don't really mind when we are inconvenienced -- we simply take it in stride.
In fact, substantial evidence shows that left-handers can and do enjoy healthy, happy lives, unfettered by misinformation, undaunted by the very real obstacles they sometimes face. In addition to those lives, history is teeming with examples of creative, successful, powerful, and extraordinary left-handers. Actors, artists, musicians, world leaders, athletes, scientists, and writers fill the growing ranks. Each of the following chapters will feature a list of some of these left-handed luminaries.
Copyright © 2001 by LifeTime Media Inc.