14/08/2014 12:49 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

The House Dad Chronicles: Should I Worry About My Son's Fidgeting?

The House Dad Chronicles: Should I worry about my son's fidgeting?

My five-year-old son is the cuddliest, most tactile person I have ever met in my life.

Very often, apropo of absolutely nothing, he will climb onto my lap, put his arms around my neck and say: "I love you so much I could squeeze your head off."

Other times, he will climb into bed between me and his mother, put his arms around both our necks and draw us both so close to him that neither of us can barely breathe.

And on other occasions, he will wrestle his eight-year-old brother to the ground, put his hands on his ears and virtually headbutt him with a smackeroo of a kiss right on his forehead.

Hmmm, perhaps this is not such a good thing after all. Perhaps he's a budding serial killer!

But seriously, we feel immensely blessed to have such an affectionate child. There is not the faintest ember of a nasty streak in his body. Not a dim glow of malevolence. He loves the world, and as far as we can see, the world loves him.

He's as comfortable with older kids as he is with peers. He's got a fantastic little gang of mates in his class and he gets invited to play dates by his big brother's mates, with whom he rough-and-tumbles like a lion cub.

But there is a downside to all this tactility. For as well as cuddling us and his mates, he seems to have a compulsion to touch everything else that comes even close to his reach.

In shops, he picks up anything and everything that isn't pinned down and has, on more than one occasion, dropped stuff which I've then had to pay for (though he's never been smacked by a store assistant, unlike the little girl in Boots the other week).

At home, he insists on helping unload the dishwasher with such disastrous consequences that I now wait until he's at school. And when he's at his grandparents, we virtually have to tie his arms to his side in case he feels the compulsion to stroke grandma's antique ornaments.


This has led to a phrase that I have not heard since my dad used to say it to my younger brother: "STOP FIDDLING." Not in the violin-playing sense, but I the 'Don't Touch It, It's Not Yours, You'll Break It And I'll Have To Pay For It' sense.


It sounds like a harmless enough trait, but it is starting to have irritating, and maybe even harmful, consequences.

The day before he was due back at school after the Easter holidays, I took him and a friend to London Zoo and my lad's fiddling went into overdrive. So many surfaces, so many textures, so many things he shouldn't be touching but couldn't help himself.

It was a Fiddler's Paradise - until he put a finger through the bars of a monkey cage and only escaped with his digit still intact after I whipped it out.

Irritating is one thing - but it could be even be harmful, long term?

When we sit at the kitchen table each night in a valiant attempt to do a bit of homework, he soon descends into Fiddling Mode – playing with his pencil, fiddling with a stray spoon, pawing at the fridge magnets.

I've seen him do the same in class, as I've peered through the window, waiting to collect him, squirming on the carpet as if he's riddled with worms. Waving his arms around like a pint-sized orchestra conductor when he speaks.

Is this anything to worry about? I've read some research that children fidget out of boredom, nervousness, agitation and conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And last year I wrote an article that getting your child to sit up straight and pay attention (aka to stop fiddling) would lead to greater academic success.

"Toddlers who are better at concentrating, taking directions and cracking on with a game even after hitting difficulties have a 50 per cent greater chance of getting a degree when older," a report by Oregon State University found. And I can see the logic of that.

But can I do about it? This Guide Too Stop Children Fidgeting offers four suggestions:

1) Break Lessons into Smaller Tasks

Teachers can break their lessons into smaller segments, according to the needs of their students. Some teachers keep mini trampolines and Swiss exercise balls in their classroom for students to use between lessons.

Hmmm, I'm not sure our local education authority will stump up for that!

2) Provide Errands and Tasks

Parents should assign tasks like cleaning the kitchen, yard work, vacuuming and dusting to keep their children busy. This helps children focus their energy on their assignments and not on fidgeting.

Hmmm, I'm not sure any of our crockery, ornaments or furniture would survive such an experience.

3) Encourage Physical Activity. Good activities for fidgeting children include roller skating, running and martial arts.

Hmmm, not ideal in our flat.

4) Give Fidgeting Objects

Parents can give their children quieter fidgeting objects like worry beads and squeeze balls. In this way, a child can release her energy without distracting other people. Parents can also encourage their child's interest in hobbies that require constant hand movement. Kid-friendly hobbies include painting, knitting, embroidery, colouring and drawing, and playing with clay.

Yesssss, well, that could work.

When I suggested the latter to my wife, she just laughed. Now my wife is a level-headed sort of woman. She doesn't flap or panic and reach for the parenting manual. Instead, she did a quick search of Google and pointed out a piece of research.

In a nutshell, it said psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire had found that children who could move their hands around freely were better at learning than pupils who were not allowed to move.


They believe that hand movements and gestures can help children to think, speak and learn.


The study examined the differences in learning when children were able to move around their hands and when they were forced to keep their hands still - by putting them into a pair of mittens attached to the table.

They found that when children were able to move their hands they were more likely to be able to find the correct answer - particularly when it was a case of trying to recall a word on 'the tip of their tongue'.

And they concluded that if teachers encouraged more fidgeting in class children might actually learn more .

The children, aged six to eight, had been asked to name objects in pictures - and the researchers found that using their hands to gesture helped children to 'find the right word'.

"People often think we gesture to help others understand what we are saying. But in fact gestures help us find the right words," a researcher said.

"We also know they can help children think and are important for problem solving and speaking.

"Therefore, far from restricting children from moving their hands, if teachers encouraged more fidgeting in class they might find children actually learn more.

"Children who fidget in class can be an annoyance for teachers. Many cope by telling children to sit on their hands or keep absolutely still in class, but our research has shown that they need their hands free so that they can gesture."

In other words, fiddling and fidgeting is a good thing. Who knows, the boy might grow up to be a genius. And if not, then at least one of the best orchestra conductors the world has ever known!