That Rumspringa Misconception, Again

… and again. 

I can gear a book talk towards correcting the misconception about Rumspringa, yet inevitably one of the first questions posed to me from an audience member will be about that time when young people get to leave the culture and decide whether they want to come back and join the Amish.

Last night was no exception. My first question from a gentleman in the audience was: “What about your sabbatical?”

I try not to let my heart sink when this question comes up. It feels so daunting to repeat my answer to every single audience. Sometimes it feels so futile. This myth is so implanted in people’s minds, they equate it with the word “Amish.” I know some people don’t even believe what I have to say about this misconception, and some may even disbelieve other things I have to say because they just “know” this to be true. Maybe I wasted my breath last night, but I gave the answer I always do.

This morning I opened an email from one of the German teachers at Smith, who sent me a link to an article from Der Spiegel that was entitled: Leben als junger Amish (The Life of Amish Young People). It was a story about two Amish girls from Lancaster: one who chose to stay Amish and one who left the Amish.

Here is one paragraph, followed by my translation.

“Rumspringa”: Zeit für Sex, Drogen, Führerschein
“Es gibt aber eine Zeit, in der diese Grenze durchlässig ist, in der junge Menschen ab 16 aus dem Korsett der Gemeinde ausbrechen dürfen. “Rumspringa” heißt sie. Diese Zeit dauert, solange sie eben dauert, und endet erst mit der Entscheidung für ein Leben mit der Gemeinde. Oder ohne sie.”

“Rumspringa: A Time for Sex, Drugs, Driver’s License

“There is a time, however, in which the limits are permeable, when young people turn 16 and they are allowed to break out of the corset of the church. “Rumspringa” is what it’s called. This time lasts as long as it lasts, and ends only with the decision for a life within the church. Or outside it.”

This was the paragraph that really did make my heart sink, because I realized this misconception is even bigger than I thought… now there are people in Germany who think this is the gospel truth about Amish culture as well. I wonder how many people will see the contradiction, right there in the same article.

Esther Schmucker, the young woman who decided to leave, describes how her mother broke off all contact with Esther as soon as she left home. They didn’t communicate for more than two years. Here is my question: How can you believe that Amish parents give their young people a conscious choice about staying or leaving, when the parents cut off all contact with their sons or daughters if they do leave? 

One can ask why it matters to me whether people know the truth about “Rumspringa” or hang on to their misconceptions. It is a fair question and one that I will answer.

At the heart of many other misconceptions about the Amish is the one that young people are given a conscious choice about whether to stay or leave.  This is central to being able to hold the Amish on a pedestal and believe many other romanticized things about them, such as the notion that they eat only natural foods or wear clothing made of natural fibers — that what is true about one group or family of Amish is true of them all and that they live in harmony, free of the pitfalls of the rest of society. 

Some Amish eat wholesome foods and are conscious of eating healthy, while others eat sugared cereal (with more sugar added) and white store-bought bread; some Amish may prefer cotton material, but others like the convenience of synthetic fabric for their clothing and make most of their clothes from polyester material; there are as many ways to uphold the Amish traditions as there are bishops (more than 1,900), which means there are very few things we can say about “the Amish”; and the Amish are human, which means they have as many problems as those that plague the rest of society.

This is the reason I feel so passionate about the “truth” about Rumspringa. I find it central to understanding who the Amish are as a people. And so I give my answer, like a mantra, yet again.

The Truth about Rumspringa

The Rumspringa years are basically the time in Amish young people’s lives when they join the young people’s gatherings and begin dating and ends with marriage. In many communities, the young people begin dating before they become members of the church, so they are in between the supervision of their parents and the supervision of the church. This can be a time of ambiguity and young people may exhibit rebellion of the Amish ways as they “sow their wild oats.” The parents may look the other way as their young people do things that are not usually allowed in the church. It varies a great deal from one family to the next, and from one community to the next how much the parents will tolerate the “wild” ways. There are some communities in which the young people are required to become baptized members before they are allowed to date and other communities in which young people are permitted to live at home even though they drive cars or dress in “English” clothing. Most communities are somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum. 


In my community at the time when I was growing up, the wildest young people would visit bars and drink alcohol, play music, dance, or have cameras or radios on the sly. These things were not as bad in the eyes of the parents and elders as showing signs that they were unzufriede, (discontent) with the Amish ways. The telltale signs that the parents and elders watched for were: taking a course at a college, taking trips far away from home alone, dating someone outside the Amish, or deciding to go out for dinner on dates instead of dating the traditional way. These telltale signs would result in the parents and elders of the church admonishing that young person that he or she should make a commitment to “follow the church” and become a baptized member. 


The expectation that Amish parents and elders have is that their young people will become baptized members of the church. Parents are told that if they raise their children right, they won’t leave the Amish. The parents are also told that it is better to lose a child through death, than to lose a son or daughter “to the world.” Children are taught from the time they can understand the concept that because they were born Amish, God wants them to stay Amish and if they leave, all hope of their salvation will be lost. In other words, they will go to Hell if they leave. This belief is reinforced with fire and brimstone preaching in church. The guilt trap is set — for both the Amish parents and the young people.


There is something else in the ways of the Amish that contradict the idea of the parents giving their young people a conscious choice about staying or leaving. The Amish were granted an exemption from compulsory education in the 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder Supreme Court CaseThe arguments in favor of this decision centered on the survival of the Amish culture. The claim was that if they were compelled to educate their children beyond the eighth grade, the culture would not survive. Think about that. The survival of the Amish culture rests on barring their children from having more than a basic education. Therefore, the Amish (and in this case, I can use the term “the Amish’) educate their sons and daughters only through the eighth grade. The first step in giving children a choice about their future is to provide them with an education that allows them to do so.


I certainly did not feel like I had a conscious choice. First came subtle hints, then outright suggestions, and finally admonishments that I should “follow the church” and become baptized the summer I was turning nineteen. I was unsure about becoming an official member because I questioned my ability to be a “good member” of the church, which is one who does not question the ways of the Amish. I have always had an insatiable desire to ask fundamental questions, and as I was taking instructions for baptism, I still could not stop these questions from boiling up from within. I lacked the conviction to join the church, yet I lacked the courage to leave altogether. I took the middle road and joined the church without conviction. 


The “choice” Amish people have about leaving the culture is much like the one about committing suicide — we know our whole lives that we have that choice, but the only time we think about it is when we are tempted to do so. 


So, if you see an Amish young person blatantly defying Amish rules know that these are acts of rebellion — a far cry from being granted a free choice. I can assure you the parents or elders of the church are not encouraging this behavior.


Perhaps there are reasons I don’t understand why people want to believe that the Amish give their young people a choice about staying or leaving. If so, I should save my breath next time this issue arises and simply say, “If that had been true, believe me, I’d have taken that road out.” 

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20 thoughts on “That Rumspringa Misconception, Again”

  1. Thanks for explaining yet again. What bothers you is that people think there is a choice when there is none. Disturbing that being discontent with Amish ways is worse than wild behavior.

  2. Saloma I know what you say to be true. I suppose many people interested in the Amish are disillusioned with all the romantic Amish fiction that seems to be all the rage. Rumspringa seems to be a term frequently used to describe the “running around” years.

    I do have a friend that lives in Shipshewana Indiana. She runs a B&B and lives literally amongst the Amish community. We have discussed at length the subject, and how she observes the Amish youth. Its really interesting to get her perspective.

  3. I was raised in a very traditional, conservative church denomination that included headcoverings, skirts, etc… I can relate to a lot of your posts. Leaving that church has created a lot of “issues” with my husband’s family and he is told as well if he doesn’t change his mind and come back to the church he will not make it to Heaven. So sad. Thanks so much for your postings!

  4. Thanks, Stephanie, for your comments. Your observation about discontent versus wild behavior is a very interesting one. Thanks for the clarity.

    Amy, thanks for sharing your experience with your friend. I believe that people who live near or among the Amish do have a better sense of things. I think the farther away that someone lives from an Amish community, the more they tend to romanticize the culture. And you’re right, the romantic Amish fiction doesn’t help matters.

  5. Anonymous, thank you for sharing a bit of your story. What I found is that as soon as I looked the fear of going to Hell square in the face, it lost it’s power. That is when I no longer believed what I’d been taught. Blessings to you and your husband as you follow your chosen path.

    Saloma

  6. My biggest peeve too is the misconception that we had a conscious choice about leaving during rumspringa. So untrue. I try to set the record straight only to be opposed by know-it-alls on the periphery of Amish communities. Just part of the the mystique that venerates the Amish and demonizes those who leave.

  7. I suppose it all comes down to why it is so important to venerate the Amish… it would take away people’s model of a good society. I think it’s important to believe in goodness, but to pin that on others let’s us off the hook. Perhaps it is time for people to find the goodness within and LIVE it, instead of being voyeurs of it. Why can’t the Amish be human and have the potential for good and evil, like anyone else?

    I have a question for you, Stutzman. Do you think we will ever make a difference in correcting this misconception, or do you think we are wasting our breath?

    Saloma

  8. Saloma, I find it so sad that you were in fact “bullied” into making a decision. Shunned, and that is one thing I do NOT admire about the Amish! I am sorry for you and others who have had to choose between a faith/culture and your family.

  9. Awesome explanation, Saloma. I was quite young when my parents left the Amish church, but I have an appreciation for my Amish heritage and relatives. I believe that Amish fiction has so warped the minds of people and caused them to believe they know all about the Amish and their ways. It seems to me that unless you have been a part of the culture or very closely connected, some of the ways and concepts just can’t be understand.

  10. Rhonda, thank you for your comments. Shunning is another matter… for me it was not as horrible as some people think. I could still visit my family as long as they followed the rules of shunning: avoiding eating with me, doing business with me, accepting gifts from me, or riding in my car (though they can ride in yours). Nonetheless, leaving the community is very difficult.

    Anon, I am with you… the Amish fiction has people starry-eyed about the Amish. I have people coming to my talks saying, “I have read so many Beverly Lewis books, and I learn so much about the Amish culture!” I want to say to them, “No, honey, I don’t think you have.” Instead I smile and say, “My book is quite different from her books.”

    And you’re right… unless you’ve lived the life, there are things you just cannot understand.

    1. I understand what you mean, however, I feel like I have learned a lot from this brief instruction. it gave me a flavor I had not had. I have not in the past, though, romanticized the Amish. ppl are ppl. but I did have the misconception that you speak of. so thank you for correcting that for me. I was just speaking of it the other day with friends n now I will share this with them so they too will be more correctly informed.

  11. Interesting comments from all.

    I was once Jahovahs Witness, many, many years ago. Since leaving the congregation, I have found that with most religions that are very different and want to keep separate from todays world, believe in giving a choice to those who become members of the church. They say it is for their young to choose for themselves, but of course, believing whole-heartedly that they are doing what is right according to God’s will, they obviously would want their children to stay in the church. I don’t think that is different from Jahovah’s Witnesses, LDS, or The Amish among other more extreme religions, for lack of a better term.

    I don’t have the same conviction that this misconception it is “romanticizing” the religion, amongst any of them mentioned above. I simply think they want what they believe to be best for their children, which to them obviously means staying. In that, I don’t have the same conviction to say it’s a misconception that the young are able to freely choose their own path. They can choose, but members truly do want the young only to stay, believe themselves that it is the best choice.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, just sharing my perspective.

  12. I am one who has read some Amish fiction (only 2 authors … lately I have found them a bit trite) but never assumed from their writings that rumspringa was a time for choosing to be Amish, but rather just “choosing” to be rebellious on one end of the spectrum and “choosing” whom to date and where, and whether to go to a singing at the other end.

    I did see a special on TV, once, that “showed” Amish teens making choices, some of them bad and one could very easily assume from the dialogue that these kids had a real choice to make with no repercussions other than hurting their parents ‘feelings’; no mention was made of parents/church threatening the punishment of hell. I wish I could remember the name of the special but it was a long time ago. I remember thinking that perhaps this was just one community that was not like the rest.

    In my area of NY, the Amish teens have little to choose from! Unemployment is very high, so leaving the family business just doesn’t make sense. One community from Ohio, came here because rumpsringa got out of hand in their old community. They wanted a safer environment for their children where the parents could have more control. Yep, there’s choice for ‘ya!

    My favorite “Amish” to read about, now is right here on my blog list ;-)

  13. Anon, it is not the Amish who are spreading the misconception… the Amish I know are well aware that the rest of the world has a misconception about this. And Peggy is right, the documentary, “The Devil’s Playground” was largely responsible for perpetuating this myth. Before that I don’t think many people had really heard the word. Even the Amish don’t like that this misconception is out there. But, it seems to have a life of its own.

    Peggy, I’m not so sure that the authors of Amish fiction use the term “rumspringa” but the concept of the young people having a choice I think does get perpetuated. I say “I think” because I’ve only read about three of those books. I cannot bear how many details are just wrong in these stories.

    It does not surprise me that the people in your area moved there because they wanted stricter control over their young people. That is a common reason for people to start new communities.

    Thanks for visiting my blog, as always.

    Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

    Saloma

  14. Bless you! I admire your tact and ability to deal with redundancy. Thank you for telling your story! I bought your book and loved it, and I also bought the PBS special. I love your fresh perspective and gentle humor.

  15. Saloma, Does repeating your message about the rumspringa misconception make a difference? I believe it does. Even if it is only the people who read your blog, book or hear your talks who hear the message you don’t know who will hear it from them. Yes, it may feel discouraging or a hopeless task at times, but it is an important message.

    Turning the tide on romanticizing Amish life in romance fiction — that is by far the harder task. But who knows, maybe some of the authors will find their way to your blog. The world has an insatiable appetite for love and romance as evidenced by the genre that is doing so well when many publishing companies have been struggling. And “Christian” readers also like this genre, but they want “sweet” romances. For some reason Amish romance has struck a chord for many of these readers. Maybe the authors should have assigned reading of your blog so they get some of the facts right.
    Nan

  16. well, I am glad you are ‘redundant’ because I learned something. Something that I didn’t know about at all so I’m glad you explained what people think it is and what it really is. I’d never heard of it. Not that I knew very much about the Amish at all to start with.

  17. Isn’t it the doc film Devil’s Playground that perpetuated the rum springa myth? Or at least the way dominant American cultural lense allows us to understand that film?

  18. Saloma,
    I never thought about the word “choice” when it came to leaving the Amish as you have discussed it here. I totally get what you’re saying. No, there was no choice. None. As I read this I see where the elders/parents/bishops made it impossible for you to make a choice.
    First, they didn’t prepare you to function in mainstream society. But they did prepare you to do very well on an Amish farm which was really all they could do since that’s what they knew, I guess.
    Second, they temporarily stunted your intellect by not allowing you to attend school beyond the 8th grade. In today’s society you need more than that to get a decent job.
    Third, they told you you would burn in Hell if you left. That God was staying put on the farm. If you left them, you left God.
    No, you weren’t given a choice.
    But against all the odds you left and did well for yourself. You forged your way through. Who helped you? Who listened to you? Who taught you the ways of the world? Who caught you when you jumped? Who hugged you when you cried? Who?

  19. Great post! I love your blog — I write Amish teen fiction, and your posts really help me with my research.

    I’m in the midst of writing the Amish Hearts series, about an Amish girl who wants to attend college and become a veterinarian, but must reconcile that with her upbringing.

    So far, I have published two novellas from the series, Rumspringa Break and Amish Summer, on Amazon. I’d love to get a review from you. Please let me know if you’re interested in reading them, and I’ll gift you a copy of each!

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