Many Amish young people run wild for several years, beginning on their 16th birthdays and continuing until they either grow out of it and join the church or drop out of their society. The Amish use the term rumspringa—which means “running around”—to describe the phenomenon. Scores, if not hundreds, of kids go out and party with their friends in the back corners of farms from Friday night until Sunday night. As one young woman in Indiana says, “a good party is when there’s like, two hundred kids there—really loud music, and everybody’s drinking and smoking and having a great old time.”
Tom Shachtman’s book about rumspringa is based on over 400 hours of interviews with Amish people, particularly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the Shipshewana area of northern Indiana. The text of the book includes the stories of many youngsters, some of whom still live at home, though they often have jobs and cars.
Going through the process of rumspringa gives the Amish young people a lot of exposure to the forbidden fruits of the rest of American society, the culture that many of them want to experience—at least for a time. Their parents, of course, worry that their maturing youngsters will go too far and forsake their church and society, but in fact many ultimately give up the outside ways, join the church, marry, have children, and become responsible Amish adults. The book describes the process.
The author argues that Amish kids, just like non-Amish youth, need to make decisions that will affect their future lives. But the “English”—their term for the rest of us—can have multiple chances to make big decisions, such as several marriages or perhaps even several churches. The Amish youth either decide to join their church as young adults, which implies a life-long commitment to living by the detailed rules of their society, or they decide to forego their group and join the mainstream society.
The author weaves into his story many different aspects of Amish society in order to throw light on the rumspringa process and the raising of Amish young people. For instance, he explains how the Amish ordnung, the detailed code of social practices formulated by the members of each church district, are designed to prevent people from falling into sin. These rules can be highly detailed and controlling: whether or not people can mow their lawns with power mowers, or how they may fasten their clothing together. Not surprisingly, young people often chafe at the strictness of the rules, even though they have grown up in a society where people generally accept the need for them.
Shachtman devotes chapters to the Amish style of formal education, the shunning process, and the shift away from farming into factory jobs. He explains that in an earlier era, adolescence was short and life expectancy was briefer than today. By 18 or 19, most Amish young people had joined the church, married, gotten jobs, and were fully-functioning adults. But the way the broader society prolongs adolescence today affects the Amish—the faster, more complex (and to many Amish, more evil) outside world has many attractions for their teenagers.
The stories of the Amish kids themselves form the preponderance of the narrative. Shachtman is a good storyteller, so the experiences of the teenagers—their hopes, fears, aspirations, temptations, and personal relationships—all come across as very believable and real.
From page 219 to 231, for instance, he tells one story after another of the ways young Amish women deal with the closing periods of their rumspringa years. They are getting older, and it is time to figure out whether to stay with the outside world, with all that it offers and all of its uncertainties and worldliness, or whether to make the life-long commitment back to their families and friends. “Marlys B, the tightly wound ball of energy who likes to wear all black—turtleneck, bell-bottoms, platform shoes—is having a problem not of her own making,” he tells us on page 219. She resolves the problem by joining the Amish church.
Shachtman admits to having some problems with the Amish approach to raising their children. He feels that, by truncating their educations, they are denying their kids the option of joining the outside society as educated adults, should they wish to do so. Without an education beyond the eighth grade, it is hard for Amish young people to even conceptualize the possibilities that might be open to them. He also argues that they are “psychologically ill prepared for complex, open-minded interaction with the larger world” (p.264). But he does admit that there are many valuable features to Amish society that would certainly justify the young people in wanting to join their church, such as the way they preserve their openness, honesty, and integrity with one another.
In his closing chapter, Shachtman predicts that the Amish will move gradually toward the mainstream American society because their jobs promote ever-increasing contact with it. He feels they will adapt well to the challenge and maintain their cultural integrity, much as the Hasidic Jews have been able to do in American cities.
But he also argues that mainstream society should consider the challenge of moving more toward the Amish. He admires them for their values: for working hard, for disdaining conspicuous consumption, for focusing on family and neighbors, and for living lightly on the land. Unfortunately, his paean of praise for the Amish in his concluding paragraph fails to mention perhaps the most significant example they might set for the mainstream society—their nonresistant values, their refusal to fight, and their forgiveness of others.
Their acceptance of peacefulness, dictated by the Sermon on the Mount, is one of the cornerstones of their beliefs. It is not mentioned in this last section—but the book is worthwhile anyway.
Shachtman, Tom. 2006. Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish. New York: North Point Press