John Holt
Teach Your Own
Delacorte Press, 1981

From Chapter 11, Learning Difficulties


Many adults get very upset and anxious about right and left. If a child writes a letter backward, or reads off some letters in the wrong order, or does anything else to suggest he is confused about right and left, adults begin to talk excitedly about "mixed dominance" and "perceptual handicaps" and "learning difficulties." The child is quickly labeled as "having a serious problem" Specialists (if the family or school can afford them) are called in and told to take over.

A child once asked me a question that not only completely surprised me, but also suggesting that when children are confused about right and left, the reason may not be in them but in us, the adults, and the way we talk about right and left. In short, the child's confusion may make sense, and if we only understood that, we might easily straighten it out.

I was in an early elementary classroom, working on something with some children in a corner of the room. I needed something in my desk, and asked a child please to get it for me. He said okay, and asked where it was. I said, "In the top right-hand drawer." There was a pause. Then he said, "Whose right hand, mine or the desk's?"

For an instant I was baffled. The I saw, and understood. When he looked at the desk, it was as if he saw a living creature looking at him. So I said, "Your right hand." Off he went, brought back what I had asked for, and that was that.

Later, I thought that many young children must be animists, and see objects as if they were living creatures. I wondered how many of them might have had that same question in their minds, without ever asking it. And if they didn't ask it, how did they ever learn the answer? Probably from experience. They went to the desk, looked in its right-hand drawer, found nothing, looked in their right-hand drawer, found what they wanted, and so learned which was meant, like the infant I described in How Children Learn, who at the table asked people to pass the salt, pepper, butter, etc., so that by seeing what was passed she could find out what those words meant.

But some children might not interpret the desk experience in that way. The might assume that the adult had made a mistake about the drawer. Or they might think that they themselves had made a mistake about which was right and which was left. The kind of children who worried about mistakes, because their parents or teachers worried, might be particularly ready to blame themselves for any confusion.

Only recently, as I began to think more about this, did I realize that our adult rules about right and left are even more confused than I had thought. Thus, when we ask a child to get something out of our right-hand coat pocket, we mean the coat's right hand, not the child's. When we talk about the right headlight of a car, we mean the car's right hand. But the right hand entrance to a house is our right hand, not the house's. We adults talk sometimes as if things were people, and sometimes as if they were not, and there's little rhyme or reason in the way we do this. Why should a car or boat or train have its own right side, but not a house?

In the theater, of course, the confusion about whether the audience's or the actors' right or left is meant led people to invent the words "stage right" or "stage left" to mean the right or left of the actors as they looked at the audience.

Under photos of groups of people we see, "Reading from left to right, Jones, Smith, Brown, etc." A child being shown such a photo might hear someone say, "That's me over on the right." Our right as we look at it? Or the right of the group? So the people on the right are really on the left, and vice versa. Some children might see this as more of the world's delightful nonsense. But other children might think in panic and terror, "Why don't they make up their minds which way they want it? How do they ever expect me to get it straight?"

We might well ask, how do any of us ever get it straight. Most of us learn it the way we learned the grammar of our language, which is so subtle and complicated that (I am told) no one has yet been able to teach it to a computer. Children learn very early that the words "I, you, she, etc." refer to different people depending on who is saying them. Not an easy thing to figure out, when you come to think about it. Yet no one ever explains that to them. Nor do they say to themselves, as they grow up, "I refers to the person who is talking, you to the person or persons talked to, we to both of them together, and he, she, they or it to the people or things talked about." They just use the words that way, and it works.

In the same way, most children don't think to themselves, "Cars, boats, coats, trains, planes, all have their own right hands, while books, photos, desks, houses do not." They just learn from experience which is which, and don't worry much about the contradictions, just as most French children don't worry about why a house should be feminine and a building masculine, or a coat masculine and a shirt feminine.

In short, most children master the confusion of right and left because they never become aware of it, any more than I did until just a few days ago. Others may become aware of the confusion but are not troubled by it and don't feel any need to set it right or make sense of it- it's just the way things are. But some children are philosophers. They examine everything. They expect and want things to make sense, and if they don't, to find out why not. Still others are threatened and terrified by confusion and paradox, above all by seeing people act as if something made sense when it obviously doesn't. At some deep level of their being, they wonder, "Am I the one who's crazy?"

I suspect that most of the children who have persistent trouble with right and left in school or in life are of this latter kind. After a few right-left mistakes, which they make only because they have not yet learned our crazy right-left rules, they begin to think, "I must be stupid, I never can figure out right and left." Soon they go into a blind panic every time the words come up. They work out complicated strategies of bluff and avoidance. When people ask about right and left, they learn to get other clues- "You mean the one by the window?" etc. (Since this article appeared in GWS, many adults have told me about the tricks and devices they must rely on to keep from mixing up right and left.) In general, they assume that their is something wrong with them.

If this is true, what might we do about it? One thing we should not do is set out to "teach" the rules of right and left. Most children have always figured out right and left without much teaching, other than being told when very little, "This is your right hand, this is your left foot, etc." Let them go on learning it that way. But if a child seems to be confused or anxious about this, then we can begin to make the rules more explicit. We can say, "I mean your right hand, not the desk's," or "I mean the coat's right hand not yours," perhaps adding "I know that sounds a bit crazy, but that's just the way we say it, don't worry about it, you'll get used to it."

Back to Teach Your Own, or on to Stress and Perception, from Chapter 11.