Background information

Left-hander expert: «retraining can cause concentration and memory problems»

Martin Rupf
Translation: Julia Graham

Left-handed people still encounter a lot of obstacles on a day-to-day basis. Left-hander advisor Barbara Sattler explains how you can tell if your child is left-handed and why you shouldn’t try to make them unlearn this way of doing things.

«Honey, I’m just not sure. Is our son left-handed or not?» Admittedly, it’s a bit embarrassing that I don’t know. The confusion stems from the fact that our almost ten-year-old son initially did a lot of things with his left hand. That was before he was subtly but undoubtedly trained to use his right by his nursery teacher. I can only hope that the imposed retraining doesn’t have a negative impact on our son. Because when I talk to Barbara Sattler, it soon becomes clear that this is exactly what can happen.

With a doctorate in psychotherapy, Barbara has been focussing on this topic for almost 40 years and established the first German Consulting and Information Center for left-handers and Converted Left-handers in Munich. This network comprises over 500 certified left-hander consultants in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Barbara, is there data from estimations or surveys on the number of left-handed people?
Barbara Sattler: Some studies put it at about 20%. While others only find 10%. But surveys were primarily done by self-assessment. That means we have to assume the numbers are higher.

Why do we have to assume the numbers are higher?
Because a lot of retrained left-handed people would call themselves right-handed or say, «I used to be left-handed.» What’s more, some lefties who were retrained to use their right hand don’t have any recollection of this, as it was when they were little. If you find out that this section of people are left-handed, it’s only by chance. For instance, if they specifically ask their parents.

Am I right in thinking you’ve been working on this topic for so long because you’re left-handed yourself?
Yes, that’s correct. When I started to get involved with the subject, there was still a lot of prejudice around it. There was the assumption that left-handers had a higher mortality rate. Generally speaking, the perception was that left-handed people were abnormal. In Christianity, the left side is even derided for being evil. Subsequently, in the course of setting up the resource centre in the mid ’80s, we had a lot of bias to contend with.

Left-hander expert Barbara Sattler: «In many places, the world is still designed for right-handed people.»
Left-hander expert Barbara Sattler: «In many places, the world is still designed for right-handed people.»

How can I know for sure that my child is left-handed?
You can tell when your child favours their left hand for most things. In some circumstances, parents can tell as early as the crawling stage when little ones reach for things with their left hand. From one to two years, you can often spot a clear dominance. That’s something you have to be careful of. Just because a child does something with their left hand now and then doesn’t mean they’re automatically left-handed. Above all, it’s important to just observe if possible, and not talk to the child about it. The reason being that this can put pressure on kids, as they want to be as normal as they can and not stand out.

But if they start to try and write with their left hand, isn’t that a good indicator?
Definitely. Writing is a highly complex matter. It’s not something you’d do with your left hand «just for fun». But ideally, you’d already have clarity around whether your child is right- or left-handed.

What if your child keeps switching between their left and right hand?
Primarily, that can be an indication of difficulties with coordination. In cases like those, it’s definitely worth seeking out certified left-hander consultation. Changing their favoured hand often can either be a sign of a development disorder or external influence on hand coordination development. Or else that they’re orienting themselves towards another person and copying them. It’s therefore all the more important to observe your kids. For example, if you notice they keep switching hands during the same activity, it’s worth getting an expert to check their handedness.

Do you also get children who are ambidextrous?
Not usually. Humans have a dominant side of the brain, which ultimately decides if we’re right- or left-handed. It’s the same with a lot of animals. Ambidexterity is something we like to idealise. But often, it’s just a case of left-handers who, for various reasons, opt to switch hands rather than stringently using their left. So, a child might use scissors with their right hand simply because there weren’t any left-handed ones at nursery. Alternatively, they might just adapt to their right-handed environment in a lot of situations.

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Ses Left handed scissors

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That was also the case with our son. In nursery, they tried to switch him over to being right-handed in the hopes of squashing it out of him. Is that a good idea?
Definitely not. We’re talking here about an intrusion into the brain, even though it’s not a surgical intervention.

What do you mean?
Even just verbal devaluation of the left hand can make children readjust to using their right hand of their own accord. In other words, almost retraining themselves. Rebukes and corrective remarks lead people to the conclusion that being a leftie is abnormal. And because children usually want to be normal and fit in, they adapt to their environment.

What is the impact of retraining a left-handed child to be right-handed?
The dominant half of the brain wants to react, but it’s not allowed to. Meanwhile, the non-dominant half has to act, even though it only has limited ability to do so. To put it more boldly, the child stays left-handed in their head, even though they write with their right. This can cause problems with concentration and memory, as well as fine-motor issues and trouble with quick-onset fatigue or manifest in lower intelligence.

Manifest in lower intelligence?
I’m intentionally using the word «manifest». Because these children aren’t less intelligent; it’s just that they have difficulty expressing their intelligence and displaying it at full capacity. Constantly having to compensate and using more energy ends up being exhausting for them. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to psychosomatic problems. Incidentally, the same also happens with right-handers who have to switch after an accident, for instance. Intelligent children who are still well supported and encouraged can compensate to a certain extent.

As such, schools should play an important part. What’s the state of play with that nowadays?
I can mainly only speak for Germany, where it’s handled differently in each federal state. But in general, left-handed kids are given more attention in schools, and fortunately, they’ve done away with retraining.

So they’re not allowed to do that any more
That’s correct. Take a look at how left-hander Barack Obama always signs a document. He does this with the hook hand position that’s typical of lefties – one that’s completely unnatural and that leads to muscle tenseness.

Hook position?
In the past, when we wrote more with ink, left-handed people had to lift their hand so as not to smudge the writing. So while Barack Obama was allowed to stay left-handed, he obviously didn’t get any support to learn the correct, relaxed and comfortable writing position. The problem is that a lot of teachers simply know very little about how to get lefties to grasp a comfortable writing position.

What if I discover that my left-handed child has been retrained to use their right hand? Is it worth trying to train them back to their original handedness?
I’d be very wary of wanting to reverse these automated actions again. You can do it, but speaking from personal experience, I know that it can normally take two to three years and needs to be closely monitored.

If we deviate from the school context for a moment, what does daily life look like for a left-handed child? Are they also at a disadvantage there?
As a leftie, I’ll always encounter stumbling blocks. These kinds of situations serve to remind me that the world is built for right-handed people. To give you an example, I was recently in an upmarket hotel. They only had a plug for the hair dryer on the right wall. The result being that I had to stand sideways to the mirror in order to dry my hair.

Last question: at the start, you said that left-handed people were subject to prejudice as recently as a few decades ago. Conversely, it’s often said that left-handers are particularly creative. Is there any truth in that?
I’d also be wary of jumping on this stereotype. The question is, what are we using as our reference point? If we assume that about 10% of the population is left-handed, then, of course, we’ll notice creative people more. But if we’re looking at a figure more like 20%, the number of creative people should come out average. But given I’ve been working with left-handers for so many years, I can confirm that these people do tend to think about and approach things from every angle.

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Half-Danish dad of two and third child of the family, mushroom picker, angler, dedicated public viewer and world champion of putting my foot in it.

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