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We never really knew if my son was left or right-handed. He can use any most of the time. A doctor said that sometimes it takes longer time to know which hand is dominant, so we never paid attention although we thought he was left-handed.

Anyway, the school provides a little notebook to exchange information about kids with parents which must be available in my son's schoolbag. The first day his teacher put the following note:

He is left-handed

A few days later, another note:

It seems that I was wrong, he is right handed.

Last week, she wrote the following:

Can you please confirm if he is left or right-handed.

He only learned how to write 1, 2, 3 and A, B, C... He does not really write well yet, but when we ask him to write 1, 2, 3, he will use any of his hands. We tried not to tell him which hand to use and the result is bad writing regardless of the hand he uses.

So, is this normal at his age (4.5 years)? Do kids take longer time to decide which hand is dominant? Is it a sign of some serious thing, and I should be worried? So far he is an amazing kid, he speaks two languages (my wife and I are from different countries) and he can understand a third language. What makes us more worried is that his little brother who is two years old, and we already know he is right-handed.

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    Would ambidexterity be a problem? While rare, I'd consider it more of an asset that a disadvantage, but admittedly it can be confusing early at school, for example. Welcome to the site! – Stephie Aug 18 '15 at 10:42
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    You might just be lucky and ask him to use the hand that is most useful for the language he is writing (left-right = right hand, right-left = left hand). Smudging ink all over the place when writing isn't fun. – the_lotus Aug 18 '15 at 14:01
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    Worried? The boy sounds brilliant. While it might be convenient for a teacher to know which is his writing hand, he may not have one at all, and they shouldn't force it. – JTP - Apologise to Monica Aug 18 '15 at 14:42
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    It is definitely not normal, but there is nothing wrong with it. Most of my children favor a hand much sooner than that, 2-3 years old. I would tell him to pick one that feels good, and practice it, and if he wants proficiency with his off hand, to practice that one as well. There is no real reason, besides a limited lifetime, why he can't develop a decent level of proficiency with either hand. – Mauser Aug 18 '15 at 16:57
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    Indeed, it sounds like your son is ambidextrous. I've had the same as a child, and sadly, my parents forced me to always use my right hand ("for my own good"). It was extremely confusing, and I do not recommend this treatment. Even today, my right hand is "dominant" in activities like writing - but with anything I haven't been taught specifically for my right hand (e.g. handling a mouse, a sword...), both arms are near equal. Now, there's benefits to picking one over another in some activities - writing latin script is easier with the right, driving is easier with left (manual transmission)... – Luaan Aug 19 '15 at 7:30

13 Answers 13

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I have still not identified my dominant hand, and I'm 66 years old. I voluntarily switched from left to right for writing when I was 7, and was going to have to start using pen-and-ink instead of pencil.

Generally, I use whichever hand I learned with for a given task. The only significant problem is that I started using scissors in my left hand. It would have been much more convenient if I held scissors in my right hand.

For some tasks, such as drawing or using a mouse, I switch hands based on convenience.

Do make sure he knows which hand is which - something that is obvious to a strongly handed child. I learned by imagining myself in the kitchen at home, and repeating "Pantry on right, hallway on left". This is important. Knowing facts like "The loop of a "b" is to the right, the loop of a "d" is to the left" was useless until I could reliably decide which side of the paper was to the right.

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    I am the same way. My dominant hand is defined by the task I am doing. I always write with my right hand (it's hilarious to watch me try to use my left), but man oh man don't watch me try to use my right hand to brush my teeth! I had to learn my right from my left by picturing myself at a piano. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Aug 18 '15 at 16:40
  • Although it's possible to use RH scissors with your left hand (I'm definitely right-handed and can do it), you can get LH scissors. My mother was left-handed and had a pair of LH scissors. I couldn't use them, even with my left hand. – Andrew Leach Aug 18 '15 at 23:08
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    @Gusdor No, make sure they can use a mouse with either hand, if they have that option. I only buy symmetrical mice, and often use them left handed, either because my desk layout works better that way, or because my right wrist sometimes aches and not using a mouse in my right hand helps it. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 19 '15 at 13:13
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    In elementary school, our teacher placed a tiny red brick on the right side of the blackboard. Right - Red. Nobody in the class ever had an issue telling right from left. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Aug 20 '15 at 12:32
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    @Peter: Your left hand is the one where, when you place them on the table, index finger and thumb form an "L". (Doesn't work for dyslexic, but I found that one nice because it doesn't take any props. – DevSolar Aug 24 '15 at 7:52
44

Ambidexterity can be a very positive thing, however that uncertainty at early school levels can be a problem both for teachers, and for your child if you are trying to help them improve their handwriting.

A choice you can make if the child really doesn't show any preference is to decide on one and teach them to use that hand for writing consistently. This will avoid conflict in learning, and helps the child focus on one range of movements.

Whether you decide on left- or right-handed training is up to you, but many agree that learning right handed can be easier, and certainly less messy.

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    As a lefty I'll mention that writing western script (left to right, top to bottom) with ink is much easier with the right hand than with the left, because the left hand needs to be placed higher, meaning it's directly on the freshly written ink. So when either hand is ok, either learn writing with the right hand or with both. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Aug 18 '15 at 13:21
  • I'm as much to blame as anyone in this thread: comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Aug 18 '15 at 18:45
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    Perhaps teach him to use his right hand to write the LTR language, and his left hand to write the RTL language? This will require a lot of teaching outside of school, but will help him maintain dexterity in both hands, and as he gets older he should be able to learn to write either language with either hand. – Doktor J Aug 18 '15 at 18:49
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It's entirely possible your child is ambidextrous, but I think the other answerers are jumping the gun a bit.

First off, 'handedness' is not a binary (or trinary) thing: it's a continuum. Some people are essentially 100% right handed, some 100% left, and some are ... mixed. I'm in that range. I'm mostly right handed - I do everything right handed that you normally would see someone do, writing, eating, bowling - but I'm capable of doing it reasonably well left-hadned also. However, I'm certainly not ambidextrous, nor am I a lefty who was trained to be a righty: I'm a righty, who happens to be more like 70% right handed.

In fact, there are really four major categories: Right, Left, Mixed, and Ambidextrous. Mixed means you have a dominant hand for activities - but the hand isn't always the same hand for different ones (my grandfather was a lefty bowler and eater, and a righty writer and drawer, for example).

On top of that, while many children will show by 3, some don't show until 5 or 6 which hand they prefer. I haven't found any evidence that we know why that is; it may be 'less dominant' handedness (where it only shows once children are taught to write using one hand) or it may be due to differences in brain development.

In terms of whether you should be worried: On balance, no, you shouldn't be worried. One to two percent of people are ambidextrous or truly mixed-handed (ie, a roughly even number of tasks done with each hand).

However, there are some studies showing that being ambidextrous makes you more likely to be at risk for some mental health disorders and other differing brain functionality, such as ADHD. This article in Live Science covers one of the studies1. It used a sample of children in Northern Finland, and found:

By age 15 or 16, mixed-handed adolescents were also at twice the risk of having symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And those ambidextrous teens with ADHD had more severe symptoms than their right-handed counterparts.

That study is somewhat controversial, as some have questioned whether the effect still exists when properly balancing for demographic factors (gender, birth weight, gestational age at birth). However, it's worth keeping in mind, as paying attention to these issues can help lead to early diagnosis and treatment. It's important to note that the issues found are relatively minor, and are not in anything close to 100% of ambidextrous children; more than likely if your child does turn out to be mixed-handed or ambidextrous, it's most significant influence will be as a party trick or a feeling of kinship with Inigo Montoya.

1Rodriguez A, et al. (2010) "Mixed-handedness is linked to mental health problems in children and adolescents". Pediatrics (doi:10.1542/peds.2009-1165).

  • Second this. I'm definitely right-handed but up until my teens I could do most tasks about as well left handed as right. As I would generally do them right-handed as it was easier/somewhat better the effects of practice made me much more dominant than I originally was. – Loren Pechtel Aug 24 '15 at 4:28
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A common method to find out which hand is dominant is to observe which hand someone uses intuitively when they try to catch something. Take a small item, tell your son to "catch!" and throw it in his direction.

When there are no consistent results, your son might be ambidextrous. This is uncommon, but often a good thing because it usually correlates with an above average body coordination ability.

When it comes to learning writing, you should listen to the recommendations of the teachers whether it would be better for him to write with whatever hand he prefers that day or decide on one hand and keep it that way. When he really has no preference but the teachers insist on picking one, it would likely be better for him to pick the right hand. That will make his future life easier because most tools are primarily designed for right-handed people.

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    Do you have a source for "it usually correlates with an above average body coordination ability."? – Stephie Aug 18 '15 at 12:11
  • Indeed, I'd want to see a good source for this, and the throwing test as well. What I've found is largely that this isn't a very good test, and that true ambidextrous people may have more problems with coordination (but likely have equivalent results in sum). – Joe Aug 18 '15 at 17:59
  • 'A common method to find out which hand is dominant is to observe which hand someone uses intuitively when they try to catch something. Take a small item, tell your son to "catch!" and throw it in his direction.' And which hand do they catch with, dominant or non-dominant? Granted, this is after many years of baseball and softball, but my intuition is to catch with my left hand, since I throw with my dominant right hand. In fact, if it's something I catch one-handed, I have a difficult time using my right hand. – GreenMatt Aug 18 '15 at 21:22
  • @GreenMatt, training does play a role. in the absence of training a person will try to catch with their dominant hand in most cases (sometimes the closer hand will be used, other exceptions apply). This does not apply to baseball or softball players as they are trained to use a glove to catch and a bare hand to throw. My grandmother broke her arm in elementary school and as a result switched dominant hands solely as a result of writing instruction while in a cast. – hildred Aug 18 '15 at 23:33
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    If you throw something at me and yell "catch", I'll catch it with both hands... – David Richerby Aug 19 '15 at 8:55
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A good starting resource is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handedness

To help you discover the state-of-handedness of your son, some methods are mentioned here, specifically; a Purdue Pegboard Test can objectively measure motor accuracy.

American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists (AAOP)

4

Figuring out your dominant hand is correlated with fine motor development. Your son isn't delayed, because there is a wide natural range of development he is still well within. Kindergarten used to be largely about working on fine motor skills as a prerequisite to writing, but unfortunately, schools have started to push writing younger and younger, when some kids are ready, but not all.

My suggestion would be to focus on fine motor activities before writing, and ask the school to do the same (assuming you have some say). There's really no cause for concern until around age 6.

  • Thank you! he is really good in using mobile phones, play games that require precise touching and swiping and he is doing well as far as I can see.. is that related to fine motor activities and if so is it a good sign? he is in school for one month roughly.. – Nean Der Thal Aug 18 '15 at 22:20
  • I agree with Karl. I have four kids, and they have varied from starting K-5 at 4 to starting at 6. All of them (College sophomore, gr.11, gr.8, and gr.5) are straight A students. The one who started at 6 is going into his junior year in HS, and already getting recruiting letters from Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Caltech. An important factor for success in academics is their readiness, and there is a lot of variation in that. Some kids are ready socially, mentally, physically, and emotionally a lot earlier than others. Your kid sounds, from the little we have, like a bright kid. I'd not worry. – user16557 Aug 19 '15 at 20:19
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I am 61 years old. When aged 6, I broke my left arm. Through grade 3 I would write using the hand that was most "convenient", as in which side of the paper the writing utensil sat. I also wrote on blackboards most often with my right hand. Today, I write and eat left-handed, but play most sports right-handed. I do housework with either, which is actually quite convenient when cleaning corners or ironing. I sincerely hope you allow your dear child to develop THIS at his own pace. Clearly he is not developmentally delayed in other physical/mental arenas.

  • I would never force him to use a specific hand for writing or anything else, my plan is to let him find out himself.. I was just worried.. – Nean Der Thal Aug 20 '15 at 10:49
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A few years ago in a psychology class we studied human perception, and I learned that people are not just right or left handed, they are also right or left eyed.

I propose that if there seems no obvious difference in dexterity between the sides, you judge based on what eye is dominant, since it almost always* matches the dominant hand, and is quite closely tied to the brain's processing.

Here's how to test it, from about.com

Here's How:

  1. Extend your arms in front of you with your palms facing away.
  2. Bring your hands together, forming a small hole by crossing the thumbs and fore fingers.
  3. Choose a small object about 15-20 feet away from you. With both eyes open, focus on the object as you look through the small hole.
  4. Close one eye and then the other. When you close one eye, the object will be stationary. When you close the other eye, the object should disappear from the hole or jump to one side.
  5. If the object does not move when you cover one eye, then that eye is dominant. The eye that sees the object and does not move is the dominant eye.

This may be a bit of a chore to do with a 4 year old kid, but try it yourself first, so that you understand how it works. You will likely find that your dominant eye is your dominant hand's side. For instance, I am right handed, and my right eye is dominant.

In the absence of any other clear indicator, this seems like a reasonable route to me. I would start by testing more directly (like your hand writing test, or throwing a ball at him), but if that doesn't help, this might.

EDIT:

*Never mind, it is not a good predictor of hand dominance according to this study, Eye dominance in sport:A comparative study. I'm going to leave my answer, because I think it's interesting, and it's probably a better way to pick than a coin toss.

  • Interesting test. I can only get it to work about 80% of the time, though (randomly testing, with just me, on stuff around my office cubicle, so highly anecdotal and unscientific!) – Acire Aug 18 '15 at 17:46
  • Can you add references for the second sentence? I know that is sometimes true, but I'm not convinced it's anywhere near 'almost always'. I've known people with eye problems in one eye that caused them to use the other primarily (such as lazy eyes or astigmatisms). – Joe Aug 18 '15 at 17:48
  • That said, it works for me 100% of the time so far, interesting :) – Joe Aug 18 '15 at 17:49
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    Looks to me like it's a decent but not great predictor. 70-80% predictive value isn't half bad... That said, I'd move the edit note to the top, so people know it up front. – Joe Aug 18 '15 at 17:58
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    I don't really see the point here. If you can't tell which hand is dominant, that suggests that neither hand is truly dominant: if it was, it would be dominating. What's the point of saying "Your right hand is nominally dominant, even though you can use both with more or less equal facility"? – David Richerby Aug 19 '15 at 8:58
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There are many good answers here, but the reason for making a chose is to select the hand that is to train the writing. Small mussels and memory training with writing is of the essence and it will take double the time to train both hands taking time from other crucial developmental activity and tutoring time.

One nice trick to help the child select the hand it wants to use for writing is to percent it with a watch / wrist clock. Model putting the watch on your own hand and explain that we use one hand for the watch and the other for writing. Then let the child have the watch for two weeks while you help teach the child how to use it. The child is faced with a chose on witch hand the watch should go and it can help it choose a hand for writing.

This is a fun trick as the parents and child share some time with each other and helps the child learn how to use a watch at the same time.

1

In Belgium, in the early seventies, I was forced, in school, to write with my left hand. My brother in law who had the same age went to another school and wasn't forced to change. Recently, somebody showed me an old test used by family doctors to tell witch was the dominant hand. -
Give the child (or adult) a paper in front, give him 2 pens, one in the left and one in the right hand, cover the hands by a paper so the person doesn't see the pens nor the paper under it. let the person write number 1 to 9 eg starting at the top of the paper, next number under the previous OR younger children can be asked to draw little things eg an apple, a ball, the letters of their name the one unter the other - any little thing within their capacities. If there is a dominant hand, it should be easy to determine.

  • This assumes that it's somehow necessary to label one of the hands as "dominant" and one as "non-dominant". For most people, it's obvious which hand is dominant but, in cases where neither hand really dominates, what value is there in doing experiments to determine which is slightly prefered? If given a piece of grey card and asked, "Is it black or white?" you'd probably just say "neither", rather than advising me to find a colorimeter. – David Richerby Aug 21 '15 at 11:45
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I'm ambidextrous. I too, like many others switched back and forth between hands when writing as a kindergartener. The teacher threatened to beat my hands with a Number 1 pencil (the fat ones). Public teachers were allowed to do that back then. I then switched to my left hand at a weird (non-optimal angle). I still only write with my left hand. I catch a ball, hit with a racquet and throw with my right hand/arm. Interestingly enough, I wear a watch on the left arm (yes the one I write with). I still feel that I could have become proficient with the right hand as well.... I just don't now as I've learned the left only and programmed my brain that it now "feels correct to use the left".

Would you say my right hand is dominant because I catch with it? Or would you say my left is not because I wear a watch on that arm and only write with it?

I fully understand the "muscle memory" and the fact that it takes longer to learn with both. With that said, mandating a single hand seems to be a cop out for modern teaching that I still to this day (in my forties now) vehemently disagree with. I was keeping up just fine with my writing skills. It seems to me that there is no one correct answer. Your child might just end up using different hands/arms for different activities.

If the teacher is so wrapped around the axle about only teaching one hand, then ask you child to choose a hand he/she likes and only use that one in the classroom. Eventually they will either stick with it or switch to the other... asking them to stick with one will eventually lead to a dominant writing hand.

I've no psychological theory to quote you... only the experience of a 4 year old that switched hands and was forced to use only one and now as an adult have a peculiar form of ambidexterity.

1

Read Stanley Coren, The Lefthander Syndrome to get your bearings. It's a bit messy, but Coren's messiness corresponds to the research when he wrote his book.

One piece that might be pulled is that the human race does not appear to have two populations of "right-handed" and "left-handed," or three counting ambidexterity, but rather two populations of "strong right hand dominance" and "no strong right-hand dominance". The average right-hander is strongly right-handed, and clumsy at attempting one-handed tasks left-handed. The "no strong right-hand dominance" includes left-handedness, ambidexterity, and (presumably) weak right-hand dominance.

The issue that concerns me regarding schools--I was asked about my hand dominence but didn't know, then my teacher asked me what hand I'd use to catch a ball and I didn't know, and then we went outside and tossed a ball aside (clumsily for me), which I caught with alternating hands. So I was taught right-handed writing, a liability ever since.

Two takeaways in terms of things I'd love to tell you for your little one:

  1. There are not two equal and opposite side dominances, and you don't help people by taking standard strong right-dominant resources, and flipping them over to their mirror image.

  2. If a serious attempt has been made to discern your child's dominance, and your child has not clearly shown one side as dominant, that is a signature of the not-strongly-right-handed population and should be treated as such.

I am not aware of anyone being described as being as left-handed as most right-handers are right-handed. Most left-handed people can perform one-handed tasks with their right hands with vastly greater ease than most right-handed people can perform one-handed tasks with their left hands.

  • One other comment: while 48% of Olympic fencers are southpaw, there are definite advantages in terms of specialization to have one strongly dominant hand and one helper. Someone said for baseball that it's better to have one hand be the throwing hand and be the catching hand. There are legitimate issues surrounding clumsiness for the left handed and ambidexterous, but things may go better for everyone if left-handed students are not assumed to be as left-handed as righties are right-handed. Another post talked about the benefits of specializing in one hand even if the hand is not dominant... – Christos Hayward Aug 22 '15 at 23:51
0

I'm apparently a left dominant milti hander. Was tested when i was 5 or 6 because of the same type of confusion that you are describing.

I write with my left except on a white board i use my right. Untill a couple years ago. Now i write left handed on both.

When play pool i switch back because my left is better for long shots but right is better for short shots.

I use the mouse with either hand.

BUT... I was given a left handed note book in school because i was using books backward. I used the left handed notebook right handed. (had a few issues taking notes)

In the end i try things with each hand a use which ever one i like.

I feel that need for schools to determine if your dominant hand doesnt really matter

My eye dominance test (archery) switches to.

I feel it is all more of a novelty that a actual issue in modern times

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    While it's true that ambidexterity is not really a problem, I disagree that it doesn't matter for schools to find a dominant hand -- teachers want to give students a decent start at writing, and finding a consistently dominant hand to hold the pencil is both simpler for the teacher and (in many cases) better for the student. Rather than dismissing the issue brought up by the teacher, is there a way that the parents can work with them to better accommodate such a student? – Acire Aug 19 '15 at 11:18
  • I'm having difficulty finding an actual answer in here; it really just reads like a list of facts about yourself. – Dan Henderson Aug 23 '15 at 23:41
  • I believe the question being, is there cause for concern if the dominant hand has not been determine by age 4.5. Seems the responses from those that that have atypical hand dominance is that everything works out in the end. – Chris Aug 24 '15 at 0:33

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