Scholars who want to study the Hutterites are frustrated by the fact that they resist what they see as intrusive surveys, prying researchers, and structured interviews. Instead of using standard social science data-gathering techniques, Bron B. Ingoldsby and Suzanne R. Smith decided to find out more about contemporary Hutterite society, particularly their family relations, by surveying the non-Hutterite teachers who teach at the colony schools.
While some of the teachers have taught at the colonies for years, they have not been trained as objective observers, they bring their own biases into their work, and they tend to compare the Hutterites with the broader society that they fit into. Nevertheless, the colony teachers, the authors reason, could provide valuable insights into family life in the colonies.
The authors limited themselves to surveying the 120 colony teachers in Alberta who were part of a listserv for the Alberta Colony Teachers Association. They had 32 responses, 26.6 percent, to the brief questionnaire they sent out. They asked eight open-ended questions of the teachers.
The results of their survey show that parenting behaviors vary widely in the Hutterite colonies, just as they do in society at large. The authors found a wide variation in the ways Hutterites raise their children. Though in general they are very loving parents, they are also somewhat nonchalant in their supervision—indulgent but also, at times, quite strict.
A lack of supervision of very young children bothered ten of the teachers, while others commented on what seemed to them to be the harsh punishment that adults at times meted out. However, the teachers did perceive that Hutterite parents dispensed punishment in a loving context. Nine of the teachers observed that the fathers usually acted as the disciplinarians rather than the mothers.
Five teachers felt that Hutterite parents are highly caring and loving. One teacher observed, “I honestly believe that the parenting in the colony is better than on the outside. The children are very much loved and learn responsibility and respect from a very young age.” (p.257) On the other hand, one teacher witnessed, “almost no physical or verbal expression of affection.” (p.257)
Sibling relations in the Alberta colonies also vary. In other words, they are comparable to the surrounding Canadian population. Some siblings fight with one another while others have loving relationships. But there is, as one teacher wrote, “always respect for one another at the end of the day.” (p.258)
Several teachers commented on the gender discrimination among the Hutterites, the fact that boys have higher status than girls do. According to the authors, “boys expect to be waited on by the girls.” (p.259) The teachers tend to resent the practice, even if the young Hutterite women don’t. Judging by the responses to the survey, the teachers handle the gender discrimination by inhibiting it in their classrooms as much as they can. Obviously, their attempts to moderate it—by requiring boys as well as girls to do menial tasks like cleaning blackboards—probably have very little impact on the colonies outside the classrooms.
Opinions about the strengths and weakness of families also varied. Many of the teachers commented about the closeness of the Hutterite families, though some observed that the lack of privacy in the colonies could weaken them. One teacher indicated that “there is love, respect, and responsibility that could be linked to the ideals of the 1950s.” (p.260) Another teacher remarked that families “have few distractions in terms of elaborate toys, games, television…. I like the way these kids work together to solve a problem.” (p.261) Several teachers did criticize the Hutterites for what they felt was neglect of children, a lack of personal growth, and a lack of privacy in the colonies.
With all the positive (and some negative) comments the teachers made about families in the Hutterite colonies, the essence of the article is that they are similar in many ways to the rest of the surrounding Canadian population. One of the major differences from other Canadians, the authors note, is in their gender relations. The traditional Hutterite inequality, their belief in male superiority over females, persists despite the changed attitudes in most of the rest of Canada. The outside teachers are frustrated not only when they see boys who expect to be waited on by girls, but also by the girls who accept their lesser status.
While this research represents the conclusions of teachers who are not Hutterites, their opinions about family life in the colonies are certainly worth examining. This article is an interesting addition to the literature.
Ingoldsby, Bron B. and Suzanne R. Smith. 2005. “Public School Teachers Perspectives on the Contemporary Hutterite Family.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 36(2): 249-265.