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Monday, February 10, 2014

Left-Handedness: How to be a Better Parent and Teacher

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

"We must recognize that we were born as wonderful human beings with limitless possibilities. . . . Being Ambidextrous is Ideal." -- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero

Dr. Suzuki's discussion about how we train our children to be right-handed has stuck with me for years. I think that it makes sense to be ambidextrous, and in many areas of doing things, we probably are ambidextrous. I know that I open jars and pour liquid with as much ease with my left hand as I do with my right hand. I play the piano with both hands, and I am able to perform very difficult musical passages with my left hand on the violin. This observation supports the argument that we can learn to use our "other" hand as well as our dominant hand. I also know that I found it difficult to write with my left hand as well as perform other daily activities left-handed. Is what Dr. Suzuki wrote about our limitless possibilities true with regard to the possibility of training ourselves to be other-handed?

I took Dr. Suzuki at his word, and in the past six months I have pursued diligently the ability to be left-handed. I began with the simplest of tasks. Whereas I normally wiped dry my shower doors with a towel in my right hand, I began switching to my left hand to complete the task. I knew that I was used to switching hands when I was bathing, so I thought that Dr. Suzuki was onto something. I felt stilted when I wiped the doors with my left hand, but I persisted. Then one day I discovered that it was easier if I moved the towel in a different directional path than my right hand used. While I would wipe horizontally with my right hand, the left hand felt easier doing the task with a vertical motion, so I continued to follow this different direction. After awhile, wiping the doors with either hand felt the same.

Learning to write with my left hand felt very strange and uncomfortable. I had difficulty writing in cursive and still do, although I keep plugging away at it. I worked a little bit every day at printing something with my left hand. I began completing Sudoku puzzles daily with my left hand. I forced myself to print items on my grocery store list with my left hand. Eventually I began writing comments in my symphony music with my left hand. Once I allowed my left hand to show me which was the easiest way to form the letters, I had an easier time. As with the shower door lesson, my left hand showed me that it was easier in some cases to form the letters differently than my right hand would do.

I puzzled over this, and my theory is that the left hand feels more comfortable forming the letters differently in order to see what it is writing. If the left hand pursues the same path to forming the letters as the right hand does, then I have difficulty seeing what I am writing. This is most likely why many left-handed people write in a fashion that curves their hand high above the surface of their writing, so that they are able to see what they are doing.

After a while, I made other discoveries as well. I became accustomed to the feeling of strangeness that I experienced with my left hand, and when that feeling would show up in other areas, I was able to ride the wave. The feeling of strangeness was more of a feeling of differentness, and instead of avoiding it, I learned to dwell in it. When I worked on a tricky passage in my piano music, I was tempted to finger things in a way that avoided the weaker fingers, so that I could shy away from that feeling of strangeness. Now, after having lived with this strange sensation during my left-handedness project, I was able to encourage myself to use the weaker fingers again and again until the strange feeling became more familiar. I seemed able to use my piano hands in a stronger way, certainly with mental strength if not also physical.

I became fascinated with my left-handed experiment. Other people told me that there was a brain benefit as well, that by teaching myself to use both hands equally, I was also helping to strengthen my brain in a positive way, which might influence my future ability to fight off dementia or other mental deterioration. I started to develop the habit of switching hands in most everything I did, such as eating, brushing my hair and teeth, and cooking. When I shovel cedar chips or muck out manure, I switch sides with the shovel or rake. When I beat eggs, I switch hands with the whisk.

Always, I observed how I would struggle when I tried to match both hands, meaning that I had difficulties making the left hand do a mirror image of what my right hand did. At these moments, I spent a little more time trying to do the task in different directions, until I found the direction that seemed the most comfortable for my left hand. Just as my car's windshield wipers work at different angles, so my hands seemed to work better independently when I allowed them to move in different ways.

What does this discussion about learning to be other-handed have to do with parenting and teaching? I puzzled over that thought too, because Dr. Suzuki felt it was important enough to include this talk in his book. He must have had some pedagogical reason to include it. Here are some of the thoughts that I have come up with, and I note that these thoughts impact on our ability to parent and teach well. 

Patience. At first my right hand would become quite impatient with the slow progress that my left hand made. I found myself constantly fighting the right hand's very strong urge to take the pencil or spoon out of my left hand and complete the task quickly and efficiently. As I experimented with my left hand project, I discovered that I was practicing my ability to be patient with progress that was at a slower speed.

As parents and teachers, do we not all struggle with this same issue? Why can't you play this piece better/faster/easier? Haven't we worked on it enough to be at that place already? We struggle with thoughts like this, but as my left hand experiment has taught me, each hand has a different speed (at least at this moment), and if I honor that speed, then I will make progress slowly but surely. So I practice patience. As parents and teachers, this practice gift of the lesson of patience will help us to be better at parenting and teaching, with students and with ourselves.

Differentness. My left hand struggled to do things exactly the same way as my right hand, yet when I allowed my left hand to show me another possible way to do things, I was able to use my left hand easier. When I whisked my eggs, I struggled with my left hand until the moment when I allowed my left hand to move in a different direction. Then it was easy.

Children and students are different from one another, as we parents and teachers are. All of us have different learning styles, personality styles, backgrounds, and environments. We do not fit one mold. We do not find one path or direction to fit every situation. If we rest in the arms of patience and allow ourselves the freedom to discover different paths, we will deepen our ability to learn and teach.

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