Rumspringa: Amish Teens Venture into Modern Vices

Tom Shachtman

hide captionTom Shachtman is the author of more than two dozen books.

Mark Connolly

When Amish children turn 16, the rules change. They're encouraged to experiment and explore. The idea is that teens will come back to the church after tasting the modern world. For most, this means a tentative foray — a trip to the local movie theater, or driving lessons. But for some, the experience, called rumspringa, is all about sex, parties and fast cars.

Tom Shachtman's new book Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish had its beginnings in the research done for the documentary film Devil's Playground. Shachtman talks about how rumspringa works and what parents can learn from the Amish practice.

Clips from Devil's Playground

Excerpt: 'Rumspringa'

Cover of Rumpspringa shows young Amish girl smoking a cigarette.

hide captionTom Shachtman's book explores an Amish teen tradition.

In the gathering dusk of a warm, humid summer Friday evening in northern Indiana, small groups of Amish-born girls between the ages of sixteen and nineteen walk along straight country lanes that border flat fields of high cornstalks and alfalfa, dotted here and there with neat, drab houses set back from the roads. One pair of girls walks westward, another pair eastward toward the destination; a threesome travels due south. Although not yet baptized members of the church, these young ladies all wear traditional "plain" Amish garb: solid-colored, long-sleeved dresses with aprons over them, long stockings and black shoes; white bonnets indicative of their status as unmarried cover their long hair, which is parted in the middle and pinned up in the back. A few carry small satchels. Though they are used to exercise and walking strongly, their demeanor is demure, so that they appear younger than non-Amish girls of the same age. The walkers pass homes where the women and children in the yards, taking in the last of the wash off clotheslines, wear no shoes, as though to better sense the warm air, grass, and dirt between their toes. Along these country lanes, while there are a few homes belonging to the "English," the non-Amish, most are owned by Old Order Amish families.

As the shards of sunset fade, electric lights are turned on in the English homes, but only the occasional gas lamp pierces the twilight of the Amish homesteads, illuminating buggies at rest in driveways, silhouetting horses in small pastures against high clouds, and here and there a dog and cat wandering about. No music can be heard coming from the Amish houses as the girls walk past, no faint whisper of broadcast news, no whir of air conditioners. All that disturbs the calm is the occasional animal bark, whinny, snort, or trill, and every few minutes the rapid clop-clop-clop of a horse-drawn vehicle going past; the girls' peals of laughter sound as innocent, as timeless, and as much a part of the natural surround as birds' calls.

From their several directions, the walkers converge on the home of another teenage Amish girl. There they go upstairs to the bedroom shared by the young females of the family, to huddle and giggle in anticipation of what is to happen later that night, after full dark. In a window visible from the lane, they position a lit gas lamp, and they leave open an adjacent side door to the house and stairway. These are signals to male Amish youth out "cruising" that there are young ladies inside who would welcome a visit, and who might agree to go out courting-a part of the rumspringa, or "running-around," tradition that has been passed down in Amishdom for many generations.

* * *

The setting for this evening's rumspringa activities, near the town of Shipshewana and the border between LaGrange and Elkhart counties in north-central Indiana, is similar to those in the other major areas of Old Order Amish population, Holmes and Wayne counties in Ohio, and Lancaster County in Pennsylvania; and similar rumspringa preparation scenes at young girls' homes are also enacted regularly in those areas.

Such activities usually go unseen by tourists, despite Shipshewana in Indiana, Berlin in Ohio, and Intercourse in Pennsylvania having become tourist destinations for millions of Americans each year. Shipshe, as the locals call their town, has only a few streets but these are lined with nearly a hundred attractive "specialty" shops that sell merchandise as likely to have been manufactured in China as crafted in Indiana.

East and west of the sales district, the area is rural and mostly Amish. The young ladies gathered in that upstairs bedroom, waiting for young men to come calling, work in Shipshe, Middlebury, Goshen, and other neighboring towns as waitresses, dishwashers, store clerks, seamstresses, bakers, and child-minders. All have been employed since graduating from Amish schools at age fourteen or fifteen, or leaving public schools after the eighth grade, and have been dutifully turning over most of their wages to their families to assist with household expenses. After their full days at work, and before leaving their homes this evening, the young ladies have also performed their chores: feeding the cows they milked earlier in the day, providing fresh bedding for the horses, assisting with housecleaning and laundry, with the preparation, serving, and clearing away of the evening meal, and caring for dozens of younger siblings.

In the upstairs bedroom, the girls play board games and speak of certain "hopelessly uncool" teenagers in their age cohort, girls and boys whom they have known all their lives but who are not going cruising and who seem content to spend their rumspringa years attending Sunday sings after church and volleyball games arranged by parents or church officials.

An hour later, when the girls have had their fill of board games, and when the parents of the house are presumed to be asleep, cars and half-trucks are heard pulling into the dirt lane. The battered, secondhand autos and pickups are parked well off the road, to be less visible to passersby in horse-drawn buggies. Out of the vehicles clamber males from sixteen to their early twenties, most of them Amish-born but at this moment trying hard not to appear Amish, wearing T-shirts and jeans, some with long hair or crew cuts instead of Amish bowl cuts. A few English friends accompany them. The young Amish-raised men have day jobs in carpentry shops, in factories that make recreational vehicles and mobile homes, in construction, or at the animal auction and flea market in town; none are farmers, though most still live at home, some on farms and the rest on "farmettes," five- to ten-acre homesteads that have a vegetable garden and areas of pasturage for the horses and the occasional family cow.

The young men shine a flashlight on the upstairs room where the lamp is lit, and at that countersignal one girl comes downstairs and greets the guys, who then creep up the stairs. After introductory banter in the crowded room, the girls are invited to go with the boys, and they all troop back out to the cars, the Amish girls still in their traditional garb. A few words pass between the daughter of the house and her parents-who have not, after all, been asleep-but while these include admonitions to be careful, they do not specify that she is to come home at a particular hour. If the parents are worried about this pack of teenagers "going away" on a Friday night — perhaps not to return until Sunday evening — they do not overtly display that emotion.

Once the young ladies hit the cars, and the cars have pulled away from the homestead, appearances and behaviors begin to change. While riding along, each Amish girl performs at least one of many actions that have been forbidden to her throughout her childhood: lights up a cigarette, grabs a beer, switches on the rock and rap music on the car radio or CD player, converses loudly and in a flirtatious manner with members of the opposite sex.

Coursing past a small schoolhouse where a few of the riders attended classes in the recent past and into the small, nearly deserted center of Shipshewana — whose restaurants stop serving at 8:00 p.m. — the convoy heads south, past the auction depot, stopping for a while on the outskirts of the business district at a gas station and convenience store. In addition to vehicle parking spaces, the station has a hitching post for horses and buggies. What these Amish teenagers seek on this visit is the convenience store’s bathrooms, located next to a side door. In a bunch, the girls head into them, occupying for a while both the Gents’ and the Ladies’ as their male companions stand guard and graze the aisles, the older ones buying beer for them all, the younger ones springing for jerky, chips, and nuts. There are no sexually explicit magazines here at which the boys might glance, because such magazines are not carried in local stores, in deference to the wishes of the Amish and Mennonites in the area. A few young males shove quarters into a gambling machine, the Pot O Silver, which has the potential of returning them five or ten dollars for every half-dollar they put in. No one wins more than a quarter.

When the girls emerge from the bathrooms, only two of the eight still look Amish; the other six have been transformed. They wear jeans, T-shirts, and other mainstream American teenager outfits, some revealing their navels. Hair coverings have been removed, and a few have also let down their hair, uncut since childhood. "Ready to party," one lady avows. "Cruisin' and boozin'," another responds. The counter clerk, an older woman in Mennonite garb, seems unabashed by the changes in attire.

In the cars once again, cell phones — also forbidden equipment — emerge from hiding places, some from under the girls' clothing. Calls to compatriots in other vehicles, buggies as well as cars, yield the information that many dozens of Amish teenagers are now roaming the roads while trying to ascertain the location of this week's "hoedown." Soon it is identified: closer to Emma, a town three miles south of Shipshewana and not far from West-view High, the public school attended by many of the non-Amish revelers. The cars pass a young woman in a buggy heading in the direction of the party; she is smoking a cigarette and talking on her cell phone; the buggy's window flaps are open, to disperse the tobacco smoke and perhaps to facilitate the cell phone connection.

As they would in similar settings in Holmes or Lancaster County, the young Amish on the road to a party in northern Indiana pass familiar territory composed of quiet Amish homesteads and farms, suburban-looking English homes, a few factories and assembly buildings, and some small workshops. Here is a roadside stand operated by a Yoder family; there is a quilt boutique run by a Miller family; the small-engine repair shop of a member of the Esh family is nestled on a side road but has a sign visible from the main route; over yonder is a Weaver family furniture-making factory.

Around midnight, scores of Amish teenagers and twentysome-things converge on the back acres of a farm south of Shipshewana, several miles from the nearest town, a third of a mile from the farmhouse, and hidden from the nearest road by a forest of cornstalks. A used-car-lot inventory of cars, trucks, buggies, bicycles, and motorcycles is already parked here. Iced coolers of beer are put out; Amish teenagers reach for bottles with both hands. Young, mechanically adept men hook up portable CD players and boom-box speakers to car batteries. Shortly, rock and rap music blasts. Heads nod and bodies sway to the beat.

Many of the Amish kids know the words of the most current rock songs, even of black rap recordings that speak of mayhem in inner-city ghettos and anger against whites, songs they have learned from listening to battery-powered radios that they bought with the first money they earned, and that they have kept hidden at home. "When I'm angry at my bossy brothers," one young lady says, "I play rock on my radio; when I'm happy, I play country."

To have a focus for the party, the participants gather straw and brush for a bonfire. Its bright light and stark shadows crosshatch partygoers at the edges of the center, where various transactions are occurring. Most of the Amish youth are from northern Indiana, but some have come from across the state line in Michigan or from many hours away in Missouri and Ohio. There are about four hundred youth at this almost-deserted site, out of about two thousand adolescent Amish in northern Indiana. Some of the kids are what others refer to as "simmies," literally, foolish in the head, young, naive, new to rumspringa — and, most of them, willing to work hard to lose the label quickly.

Beer is the liquid of choice, but there are also bottles of rum and vodka, used to spike soft drinks. Some of the younger kids do not know the potency of what they are drinking, or what it might do to them. Many will be sick before long. Most guzzle to mimic the others, while gossiping about who is not there or is not drinking. This night, one young woman will wonder why she always seems to drink too much.

In one corner of the party, joints of marijuana are passed around, as are pipes of crank (crystal methamphetamine). Lines of cocaine are exchanged for money. A handful of the partygoers are seriously addicted, while others are trying drugs for the first time. Crank is incredibly and instantly addictive, and it is relatively simple and cheap to make; the only ingredient used that is not available from a local hardware store, anhydrous ammonia, is a gaseous fertilizer easily stolen from tanks on farms. Those few partygoers interested in doing hard drugs gather in a different location than the majority, who prefer drinking beer or smoking pot.

As the party gets into full swing, and beer and pot are making the participants feel no pain, a few Amish girls huddle and make plans to jointly rent an apartment in a nearby town when they turn eighteen, as some older girls have already done. Others shout in Pennsylvania Dutch and in English about how much it will cost to travel to and attend an Indianapolis rock concert, and the possibilities of having a navel pierced or hair cut buzz short. One bunch of teens dances to music videos shown on a laptop computer; a small group of guys, near a barn, distributes condoms.

As such parties wear on, the Amish youth become even less distinguishable from their English peers, shedding their demureness, mimicking the in-your-face postures of the mainstream teen culture, with its arrogance, defiance, raucousness, inner-city-gang hand motions and exaggerated walking stances.

"The English girls prefer us Amish guys because we're stronger and better built and we party harder," insisted one young Amish man at a similar party. Another countered that it is because the Amish guys have more money in their pockets — the result of not having to spend much on food and shelter, since most of them are living at home. The English guys are also partial to the Amish young ladies, this young man added, because Amish girls are "more willing than English girls to get drunk." Of temptation-filled parties like this, one Amish young woman will later comment, "God talks to me in one ear, Satan in the other. Part of me wants to be Amish like my parents, but the other part wants the jeans, the haircut, to do what I want to do."

Couples form and head off into the darkness. Some petting goes further than exploration, and this night one of the girls who earlier walked that country lane loses her virginity. Another partygoer becomes pregnant; several weeks from now, when she realizes it, she will simply advance her wedding date so that her child, as with about 12 percent of first births among the Amish, will be born before her marriage is nine months old. This evening, as well, a few female partygoers will bring boys home, and, with their parents' cognizance, spend the night in "bed courtship," on the girls' beds but "bundled" separately.

During parties like this, as the hours wear on, the boys frequently damage property. There are fistfights; one partygoer recalled a particularly bad incident in which a lad in a fit of bloody rage ripped the earring stud from another young man's ear.

At first light, the farm's owners and their children move about the area, to herd in and milk the cows. One farmer's daughter, spotting a partygoer about to throw up, smilingly hands her an empty pail.

An hour later, the sun is fully up, but most of the exhausted partygoers in various sheltered locations around the back acres are still asleep. Undisturbed, they will wake again near noon. Some have made plans to go to a mall, twenty miles away, to shop and see a movie before continuing the party tomorrow evening in another semideserted location.

Near Shipshe, Berlin, and Intercourse, those Amish youngsters walking on the wild side of rumspringa during this weekend will party on until, late on Sunday, they return home to sober up and ready themselves for Monday and the workweek. Most have no plans to tell their parents, upon returning to the family hearth, precisely where they have been for the previous forty-eight hours, or with whom they spent their "going away" time. While the parents may well ask such questions, the children feel little obligation to answer them.

* * *

Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania Dutch term, usually translated as "running around" and derived in part from the German word Raum, which means "space" in the sense of outside or outdoors space, room to roam. "Running around outside the bounds" is a more complete translation. The rumspringa period begins when an Amish youth turns sixteen; at that age, since the youth has not yet been baptized, he or she is not subject to the church's rules about permitted and forbidden behaviors. During rumspringa, Amish youth — a large percentage of them for the first time in their lives — go on their own in the outside world. Nearly all continue to live with their families, however, and many, maybe even a majority, do not go to the parties or otherwise engage in behaviors that Amish parents and church officials consider wild. Rather, they attend Sunday singings, occasionally go bowling, take part in structured activities supervised by church elders — tame stuff — but they have license to do things they have never done before. An individual's rumspringa ends when he or she agrees to be baptized into the church and to take up the responsibilities attendant on being an adult member of the Amish community.

Rumspringa and the Amish are the subject of this book. Interviews with youth going through rumspringa, and with their parents and others in the Amish community concerned with their rumspringa activities, constitute the bulk of its pages. Considering that the Amish make up a very small percentage of the country's population, and that not even all Amish teenagers take part in rumspringa activities, the question arises: What makes rumspringa of interest to readers who are not Amish?

The Amish are more like most mainstream Americans than almost any other minority in our midst. They share with the majority, and with this author, a common heritage: they are of "white" European stock, they embrace the Judeo-Christian ethos, and they come from families that have been in the United States for more than one generation. Also relevant are the ways in which the Amish differ from the majority, namely, in practicing an intense Christian religiosity that suffuses their daily lives, in deliberately attempting to live separately from the larger society, and in refusing to adopt precisely those practices and products of our mainstream society that have come to define and represent America and Americans to the rest of the world — our cars, our entertainment, our consumerism. This combination of shared heritage and deep cultural differences makes the Amish a particularly significant mirror for the rest of us.

The way the Amish practice Christianity may be the most salient facet of that mirror, for the United States of America is a nation whose bedrock precepts, rules of law, and standards of conduct are rooted in a Judeo-Christian, Bible-based ethos. Some of us pay more attention to those roots and text, others less, but they are always there, affecting who we are, what we do, and how we do it. As for mirrors held up by other minority groups, the majority is often able to dismiss the relevance to itself of the ways of life, behaviors, and critiques of American society that come from Asian Buddhists or Arab Muslims on the grounds that their backgrounds, cultures, and practices have so few similarities to the abovementioned majority. One cannot do the same with the Amish.

So: I contend that the adamantine Amish mirror is clearer than other, more shadowed reflective surfaces, and hope that it is also capable of sharper focus.

No images in the Amish mirror may be more illuminating, this father of two grown children has found, than those detailing how the Amish deal with adolescence. As do most parents, I find it important to listen very carefully to children when they are going through stressful events and periods—which is why this book takes a documentary approach to the lives of Amish youngsters in rumspringa, quoting them at length, and why it also delves into the activities of their parents and community members in regard to rumspringa.

"Adolescents seem to serve as a repository for the conflicts of the culture and as a bearer of its mythic projections. The more complex society becomes, the more perplexing, troubling, and problematic their role appears to be," writes S. C. Feinstein, editor of a scholarly journal on the subject. Adolescence is a journey from childhood to adulthood, and Amish adolescents, as do most Americans of that age, experience joys, ills, temptations, and challenges during their journeys, and face dangers that are far from trivial — addictions, sexually transmitted diseases, criminality, and the failures that may stem from inadequately preparing for assumption of the responsibilities of adult life.

Amish kids encounter those dangers and challenges in more concentrated form than do most of the children of the majority culture, for two reasons. First, they arrive at adolescence after childhoods that are far more sheltered (and structured) than those of our own children, and, second, Amish teens begin the rumspringa journey carrying weighty baggage consisting of the moral imperatives, biblical precepts, and complex sets of rules that the sect has imparted to them in their homes, at church, and in school.

Adolescence in America today presents youngsters with the thrill of escaping from parental supervision, with the titillation of closer contact with the opposite sex, with the lure of forbidden substances, the attraction of newness itself, and the heady scent of rebellion. In addition to experiencing these sensations, Amish youth are roiled by powerful emotional currents specific to their situation. As one regular Amish partygoer put it, after highly sheltered childhoods they have been "unleashed... All of a sudden you could do something — you could breathe!" Able at last to indulge their curiosity about the world, they do so, to frissons of endangerment and empowerment.

Rumspringa is practiced mostly in the larger and older Amish settlements of LaGrange, Holmes, and Lancaster counties; in many smaller Amish enclaves, while the teenagers may be said to be in rumspringa because of their age and unbaptized state, they are not permitted to do a lot of running around. Other Anabaptists, such as the more numerous Mennonites, do not have a rumspringa period, although, like the Amish, Mennonites insist that their young people come to the church through a freely chosen, informed, and adult baptismal decision.

"We don't give our young folks leave to go out and sin just to get it out of their system," says Dennis L, an Amish grandfather in Shipshewana. "What we give them is a little space so they can be with people their own age and find a partner." The purpose of rumspringa, such elders insist, is to give youngsters leave and ways to find an appropriate mate. The community's expectation is that, upon completion of the courtship task, a young Amish couple will end their rumspringa by agreeing to marry and concurrently make the commitment to be baptized — to "join church," in their idiom. The further expectation is that after marriage the pair will settle down, engage in no more experimental behaviors, and live fully Amish lives, under the direction of the church.

At stake for the Amish community in the rumspringa process is nothing less than the survival of their sect and way of life. For if the unbaptized children who venture into the world at sixteen do not later return to the fold in sufficient numbers, the sect will dwindle and die out.

What a tremendous risk these Amish parents and communities take in permitting their adolescents a rumspringa! The threat is that these children, once let loose, may never return; but that gamble must be chanced by the community because its members sense that the threat of not permitting the children a rumspringa is even greater. Absent a rumspringa process, there would be a higher probability of loss, of many more Amish youth succumbing to the lure of the forbidden, perhaps even after marriage and baptism, with resultant defections from the sect and havoc within it. The Amish count on the rumspringa process to inoculate youth against the strong pull of the forbidden by dosing them with the vaccine of a little worldly experience. Their gamble is also based on the notion that there is no firmer adhesive bond to a faith and way of life than a bond freely chosen, in this case chosen after rumspringa and having sampled some of the available alternative ways of living.

Judged by practical results, rumspringa must be termed largely successful. According to studies done by Thomas J. Meyers, a sociology professor at Goshen College, more than 80 percent of Amish youth do eventually become Amish church members. In some areas, the "retention rate" exceeds 90 percent.

Still, questions arise about the process. Is the choice of returning to the sect made in an entirely free manner? Have the children really "been there, done that" before they return? When on the loose, did they master the emotional and intellectual tools needed to survive in that world before deciding to give up on it?

Many Amish parents worry about their youth in rumspringa, whether or not those youth participate in the party scene, because the adolescents now going through rumspringa are significantly different from their forefathers and foremothers. While earlier generations of Amish spent their entire lives on farms, having little interchange with the non-Amish world, today more than 70 percent of male adults do not farm, and if current trends persist, an even larger percentage of their children will spend their lives in nonfarm occupations. The concern among Amish elders is that this nonfarm home and work environment will overexpose the next generation of Amish to the "English" world, and that even if they return to the church after rumspringa, their altered outlooks may eventually compromise the church's ability to sustain itself.

Excerpted from Rumspringa by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Shachtman. Published in June 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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