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International Left-Handers Day, August 13

Embracing Left-Handedness: Breaking Cultural Stigmas to Enhance Children’s Development By Frances Akinde.

Yesterday I went to a family gathering, which was lovely. It was good to catch up with family and see all our children playing. As you can imagine the food was on point, all my favourites; rice, chicken, plantain, cake and puff-puff, a whole container of puff-puff!

But let me tell you, the moment that container of delicious, deep-fried doughnuts was cracked open, eyes widened, and the fight was on to get some before it disappeared.

In their haste, an adult, in all their puff-puff passion, lunged for one with her LEFT hand!

Oh, the horror! You can imagine the room freezing and time standing still as the elders exchanged knowing glances, ready to unleash the wrath at the disrespect! I stood mouth agaze! But fear not, for this particular relative is not one to be caught red-handed, or in this case, left-handed. In a move to escape a cultural calamity, they swiftly switched puff-puff-grabbing hands, like they’d been caught with a spoon in the cooking pot. The relief on their face was priceless, and we all smiled, realising just how ingrained these cultural eccentricities can be.

We could have suggested that they performed a puff-puff repentance for their momentary left-handed lapse, like mastering the art of puff-puff juggling. Thankfully, the elders shook their heads and smiled, understanding that times have changed, and left-handedness isn’t a mischievous omen.

As we all settled down, puff-puff in hand (or should I say the correct hand), it dawned on me how these little cultural idiosyncrasies can cause us to reflect on our cultural traditions and how they have become so ingrained. That moment of puff-puff pandemonium made me question the reasoning behind the etiquette of not using your left hand, in this case for food. Why was accidentally, or to be more accurate instinctively, reaching for puff-puff with your “sinister” hand, such a social faux pas?

As a SEND specialist, my thoughts expanded to the experiences of children in the educational context. How many children, who have left-handed dominance, are still stigmatised for this and what effect does this have on their development if they are forced to use their right hand?

Left-hand dominance, also known as left-handedness, refers to using the left hand for most activities such as writing, drawing, and eating and is identified in only 10-15% of the population, ambidexterity is even lower in only 1% of the population. Left-handedness is an interesting subject and is viewed differently across cultures and time periods.

Handedness, whether we are right or left-handed, is a mix of factors like our genes, how our brains develop, and the way we’re raised. Some people are right-handed because their parents are, and certain functions in their brain are dominant on the left side. Handedness begins before birth and can be influenced by our environment and culture. It’s a complicated trait, and some people can use both hands equally well, known as ambidextrous. Researchers are still learning more about why we have handedness through studies in neuroscience and genetics.

According to the DFE Development Matters: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early year’s foundation stage. Published in 2017-

Children typically begin to show a preference for a dominant hand between the ages of three and four, as outlined in the Development Matters Guidance and Early Years Outcomes for EYFS children. However, this preference may start to emerge as early as 22-36 months and become more obvious around 40 months. As children engage in various activities that involve using their hands, a dominant hand should naturally develop. It might take until around six years old for the dominance to be more apparent, and younger children may still be trying out different hand usages as they grow and develop. Each child learns at their own pace, and there can be individual variations in this process.

When a child starts to show left-handed dominance, they may be discouraged from doing so or their needs not accommodated. Historically, left-handedness was often stigmatised and associated with negative connotations. In some cultures, the left hand was seen as impure or unlucky, which led to left-handed individuals being forced to use their right hand. This practice, known as forced right-handedness, aimed to “correct” left-handedness and was common in many societies throughout history.

Supporting left-handed children means providing simple tools and adjustments such as encouraging a comfortable writing position to prevent smudging and offering left-handed tools for daily tasks.

In numerous cultures such as my own west African culture, using the left hand is often perceived as disrespectful and is not to be encouraged. I faced this when one of my children started to display a natural left-hand dominance. Well-meaning advice suggested that I should correct this “unfortunate” preference. However, I decided to trust my instincts and let my child embrace their left-handedness without interference. And you know what? It turned out to be the right decision.

Some tutting may have been heard from elders over the years, but seeing my child confidently use their left hand with ease and skill made it all worth it. After all, what’s more important?

As educators and parents, it’s our duty to challenge the norms that may limit our children’s potential. In westernised countries (countries that have roots in Western Europe and have been influenced by Western culture) left-handedness is now widely accepted as a natural variation in human hand preference, and it is not commonly classified as a neurodivergence. However, the story differs when we explore other geographical areas, such as West Africa.

In these regions, the perception of being left-handed is deeply intertwined with cultural beliefs and traditions. Being left-handed is not merely considered a preference but rather subject to a complex web of customs and ancient superstitions that persist to this day.

Historical & Cultural perceptions of left handedness

Throughout history, left-handedness has been associated with impurity and even considered a deviation from the norm. Cultural sayings like “Eat with the right, for the left is not right” reinforce the belief that using the left hand for eating or other activities is inappropriate. In the bible right hand symbolises strength, power, and favour whilst the left hand represents a less honourable position.

This long-standing stigma around left-handedness can have significant implications for children who exhibit left-hand dominance. It may lead to them being corrected or pressured to use their right hand instead, which can cause confusion and affect their natural development. Moreover, the emotional impact of being stigmatised for something as inherent as hand preference can lead to decreased self-esteem and a sense of alienation.

As educators and parents, it is crucial for us to approach this matter with respect and sensitivity. While we mostly celebrate left-handedness now in the Western world, we must be mindful of the cultural nuances and deeply ingrained beliefs that still exist in other parts of the world. Our goal as inclusive educators should be to create environments that embrace diversity and allow every child to develop in a way that feels most natural to them.

Instead of dismissing these cultural beliefs, we should be fostering dialogue to allow us to engage in open and informed discussions with communities to promote understanding and acceptance.

Cultural heritage is an essential part of both our individual and shared identity. We can encourage change and growth while acknowledging the rich tapestry of traditions that shape our world.

This one moment of indiscretion over a ball of puff-puff led me to go down a rabbit hole of research. I found an interesting study written by a professor in Nigeria where left-handed dominance is still very much a taboo.

Left-handedness and Stigmatization in Africa: Implications for Parents and Teachers

Ayanniyi B Alhassan

Department of Education, Sule Lamido University, Nigeria, 2018

In this study, Alhassan highlights that-

In many African cultures and in many cultures of the world, there has been a history of discrimination and many stigmas associated with left-handedness.

Throughout much of Africa, and in the Middle East… you eat your food with your right hand, and you cleanse your body and do the unclean parts with your left hand. Whatever you do, do not touch African food with your left hand. That is not an uncommon set of beliefs and social processes throughout Africa [12].

Left- Handedness is extensively disapproved in most cultures: African tribes and ancient pre-Christian superstition also equate left with bad! At the very least, being left-handed was considered unnatural and peculiar in antiquity. There may well be a deeply social or biological instinctive reason why left-handedness has traditionally disturbed some.

The study I came across sheds light on an important issue – the cultural taboo surrounding left-handed dominance in Nigeria. As a country with rich cultural traditions, Nigeria holds deep-rooted beliefs and practices that influence various aspects of daily life, including how left-handedness is perceived.

In this study, the researcher delves into the historical and social implications of left-handedness in Nigeria. It highlights how left-handed individuals might face stigmatization due to prevailing cultural norms that associate the left hand with impurity or inappropriate actions.

That said, historically, left-handedness has been stigmatized or discouraged in many other cultures and regions including some Middle Eastern and African cultures where it is associated with impurity, and using the left hand for certain actions, such as eating or greeting others, is considered disrespectful. Similarly in some regions of India, left-handedness was historically viewed as undesirable, and children were encouraged or forced to use their right hand.

In Eastern Asian countries such as Japan, left-handedness was associated with evil spirits and in some European countries left-handed individuals faced societal pressure to conform to right-handed norms.

In Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, historical beliefs were influenced by superstitions, associating the left hand with impurity, bad luck, and negative character traits.

My research highlighted that there are strong cultural beliefs around this from all over the world, which I am respectful of, but it is an area of Education that has been massively overlooked.

How do we break down stereotypes and encourage acceptance?

First and foremost, we have to educate or re-educate ourselves properly before we attempt to discuss this with parents. Cultural change takes time and understanding.

The scientific understanding of left-handedness has evolved as well. While early theories suggested that left-handedness was a sign of weakness or a neurological deficit, research now shows that left-handedness is simply a natural variation in human behaviour.

However, whilst left-handedness is not considered a neurodivergent trait, neurodiversity advocates for recognising and accepting the diverse ways in which human brains function and process information. This includes acknowledging and supporting individuals with different neurological profiles and accommodating their needs to create an inclusive society. It could be argued that including left-handedness under the umbrella of neurodivergence would help raise awareness and promote acceptance of it in the same way it has for conditions such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.

Changing attitudes

Left-handedness is celebrated more, with a whole day being dedicated to people who are left-handed on August 13th. Left-handedness is a characteristic shared by many influential and accomplished individuals throughout history. From the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci to the minds of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. Musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Sir Paul McCartney, presenters such as Oprah Winfrey and politicians such as Barack Obama have demonstrated that left-handedness does not limit the potential for success and serves as a testament to the diverse talents found in humanity.

Research on Switching Dominance Later in Life

While cultural beliefs continue to influence attitudes towards left-handedness, there is growing interest in understanding whether people can switch hand dominance later in life and the potential benefits of doing so.

The practice of forcing a left-handed individual to use their right hand, also known as forced right-handedness or hand switching, was relatively common in the past due to cultural beliefs and superstitions surrounding left-handedness. However, there is limited scientific evidence to suggest that this practice directly causes cognitive or developmental difficulties in individuals. Most of the research on this topic is historical or based on personal observations like mine and forced right-handedness has significantly decreased in modern times.

What we do know is that our brains have a preferred hand dominance, and this preference is influenced by the specialisation of certain functions in our brains.

When left-handed children are forced to switch to their non-dominant hand, they may initially experience challenges and difficulties in performing tasks as their neural pathways reconnect. Using the non-dominant hand may not feel as natural or coordinated. However, over time, a person will become proficient with their non-dominant hand, especially for activities that require fine motor skills. From my research into this, the long-term effects on cognitive and developmental skills appear to be inconclusive.

Forced right-handedness could lead to emotional distress or a sense of discomfort in individuals but again this is anecdotal. In contrast, some studies suggest that rather than being negative, using your non-dominant hand or even being ambidextrous (the ability to use both hands) can actually have positive effects on cognitive skills and encourages creativity.

Summing Up

In this blog post, I wanted to explore the stigmas and taboos surrounding left-handedness, specifically within a cultural context. My personal observations and professional experiences led me to question the impact of such stigmatisation on left-handed children from different backgrounds.

From my research for this article, I have learnt that this is a complex issue influenced by genetics, brain development, and cultural upbringing. Left-handedness is a natural variation in human behaviour and in westernised societies, left-handedness is now widely accepted as a natural variation and not classified as a neurodivergence.

Whilst the cultural shift towards accepting left-handedness should be celebrated, not all societies have fully embraced left-handedness, and cultural beliefs can still lead to stigmatisation and discrimination in some regions. In certain parts of the world, left-handedness is still associated with negative connotations, superstitions, and social taboos. In such cases, left-handed individuals may face challenges and be subjected to pressure or forced to use their non-dominant hand, leading to emotional distress and a sense of alienation as their left-handedness is still associated with impurity and considered unnatural.

Therefore, I believe left-handedness should be seen as a neurodivergent trait as it is not widely accepted in all societies. Neurodiversity refers to recognising and accepting the diverse ways human brain’s function. Acknowledging and supporting left-handedness as part of an individual’s unique neurological profile may be essential for creating a truly inclusive society.

I hope I have been able to emphasise the importance of addressing cultural differences within the context of Special Educational Needs and increased your awareness of this issue. It is only by sharing our knowledge and experiences that we can truly create culturally inclusive classrooms all over the world, that embrace diversity and allow children to develop naturally. In order to create these, we need to be open to informed discussions with different communities from our own to promote understanding and acceptance.

Note-

“Puff-puff” is a popular deep-fried snack or street food in many West African countries, particularly Nigeria. It is a type of doughnut, but unlike the traditional doughnuts in other parts of the world, puff-puff has a distinct taste and texture.

The basic ingredients for making puff-puff include flour, sugar, yeast, water, and sometimes flavourings like nutmeg or vanilla extract.

In other countries it is known as –

“bofrot” – Ghana

“pan puff” – Sierra Leonne

“kala”- Liberia

“beignet” – Haiti

Asking which one is better is the same as starting a jollof war.

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