The term “Rumspringa,” the running around period of Amish young people, often conjures up images of wild living. Books have been written describing the excesses of Rumspringa, particularly in the large Amish settlements. But there is a lot more to growing up as an Amish person, as Richard Stevick explains in an impressive new book.
The basic purpose of this scholarly work is to look at the lives of Amish adolescents within the contexts of their schools, homes, friendships, work life, and leisure-time activities. The book provides a well-balanced overview of Amish religious, cultural, and social structures with a special focus on the ways their young people develop into adult Amish men and women.
One of the author’s basic assumptions is that everything about Amish society has an impact on the lives of the young people—virtually everything affects their ultimate decisions about whether to baptize into the Amish faith or not. Their lives are much broader than just the temptations to go wild with their friends when they turn 16. Only a few of Stevick’s arguments can be mentioned in a brief review.
The author maintains, for instance, that many Amish feel uncomfortable with organized sports, although they will admit that having their sons play softball may help keep them out of trouble. They feel that sports may distract people from more worthwhile activities and organizing teams into leagues may begin breaking down the Amish sense of separation from mainstream society. But most Amish adults will still accept, as a reasonable compromise, the existence of sports, as long as they are played informally and locally.
Amish boys will often play softball during recess periods at school—it is one of the most popular pastimes among young Amish people. They play to win, but they win or lose equally well—they have little or no competitive spirit. The young people play with gusto, since they enjoy the game itself, a communal activity during which they don’t argue or dispute results. Volleyball is also very popular, in part because girls can play with the boys. As with softball, children play for enjoyment rather than to win.
They finish their formal schooling at the end of the eighth grade, after which they enjoy hard physical work, something they have been looking forward to for years. Physical effort is the essence of the real world, in their view, in contrast to school work. At age 13, the family, rather than peers, is still the center of their social world. There are almost no organized youth activities for early teenagers.
Many of the author’s insights are intriguing. He points out that, in contrast to the early teenage years among mainstream children, Amish young people, before they reach age 16, live relatively uneventful lives. Mainstream young people, by the age of 13, have busy schedules, enjoy frantic activities, and are busily seeking their own autonomy, which frequently leads to conflicts with parents and authority figures. Amish 13 to 15 year olds, in contrast, are immersed in jobs and relatively tranquil family events.
When Amish youngsters do reach 16, they are encouraged to find out for themselves what the world is all about. Adults fervently hope that their children will return to the fold and baptize into the faith as adult members of the church. Parents will gain respect from the community in direct proportion to the number of their children who do become conscientious, committed Amish adults themselves. On the other hand, parents lose status when one or more of their children leaves the community permanently. In some districts, even grandparents might be shamed if their grandchildren stray from the fold.
Stevick describes the challenges the Amish face that often hamper young people from joining the church. For instance, many adults become alarmed when their sons and daughters socialize with more liberal groups such as the Beachy Amish or the Mennonites. Youngsters who are out drinking and carousing will recognize their errors eventually and they will probably come back, adults feel, but those who start socializing with more liberal people and begin questioning their Amish ways can easily defect from the church.
Another factor that may hamper young people from joining the church is an erosion in their use of their own dialect, Pennsylvania German. Many Amish adults lament that their youth are forgetting their own language and are adopting English too often for daily conversation. The adults recognize that their Pennsylvania German is a distinctive marker of their identity, and it is useful as a barrier that might inhibit young people from joining the outside world. Some adults feel that young people should learn English only well enough to interact with the outside—not well enough to feel comfortable in the mainstream society.
Another important challenge to Amish society is the fact that, in the larger settlements at least, most of the adults no longer work on farms. They are employed in local businesses, where many of their children will also work when they mature. The threat comes from exposure to outside influences. If there are televisions around them, how can they hold out against the temptations of the mainstream society?
Also, Amish adults find it is hard to maintain a meaningful work ethic for young people who do not live on a farm, when there is no manure to shovel and no daily farm work to be done. A family business may offer some work for the young, but it is usually not as demanding as farm work.
In sum, this book provides an effective overview of Amish society and the place of young people within it.
Stevick, Richard A. 2007 Growing Up Amish: The Teenage Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press