Before addressing some specific issues regarding how the Amish socialize their children, there a few important statements to be made about Amish communities in general. Despite popular belief, the Amish do not necessarily shun technology because they find it inherently evil within itself, but rather, they oppose it (and anything else) that could create divisions within the Amish community. For instance, the Amish do not shun the idea of having a modern tractor because the technology itself is thought to create community divisions, but rather because the tractor might encourage a farmer to want more land (since he could plow faster and thus more) and thus would cause tensions and create a move away from Amish community ideals. Another example is education, an issue that is especially important in the lives of Amish youth.
Instead of allowing children to advance to the academic equivalent of college, the Amish tend to keep the education limited so it does not surpass what they need to know to live within the community. To the Amish (most notably the most traditional sects) higher education might spurn a desire for material goods and possessions, be they material or immaterial, that the community is unable to offer. Again, with both cases there an avoidance of anything that could instigate pride—one of the banes of the religion. As it stands, the Amish have existed in the United States in roughly the same ways as they did when they first came across the ocean and one of the central long-standing tenants of this traditional lifestyle is community cohesion. The strong bonds of the Amish community are maintained by living simple lives that do not encourage a want for material possessions or any feelings of competition with one’s neighbors.
As a result of this powerful desire, all residents in Amish communities work together to maintain their community—even the youngest members. In addition to this general statement about community, it should also be noted that there is more freedom of choice in this lifestyle than one might typically imagine. Young people are not forever committed to living within the Amish community and when they are old enough they are offered a choice of whether or not they wish to remain in their Amish community or if they would prefer to join the outside world. The concepts of freedom of choice as well as that of community are important factors to keep in mind throughout the following essay.
Now that some of the basic ideas behind the Amish way of life have been explained, considering the socialization of Amish children can be looked at in a more culturally informed context. In general, the Amish have very large families with an average of 7 children per married couple. “Stemming from their adherence to their religious ideology, children are viewed as ‘blessings from God’ and they therefore have strong traditional norms that favor large families and church doctrine that opposes contraception" (Cooksey 3). While children are very young they are breastfed and taken care of their mothers and older female siblings There is a great deal of communal caretaking when it comes to babies and mothers will often spend time with the children of other community members as well. From a very young age Amish children are instilled with the values of simplicity and are taught to abhor pride or vanity. In addition to this, they are taught the value of hard work while very young and for children of both sexes, chores are administered as soon as the young person is physically able to handle them. Also apparent from an early age are the clear gendered divisions of labor that will persist throughout the child’s lifetime. In general, these involve the boys working with their fathers as soon as they’re able and the girls at the side of their mother assisting her with raising other children and taking care of the home.
While children are expected to start working young, their parents encourage education to what equates to the eighth-grade level in non-Amish schools. “They attend one- and two-room private schools until they are 14 or 15, and after that time, take an apprenticeship—either learning to farm or doing the books in woodworking shops" (Miller 33). It should be noted that while these schools are coeducational, upon completion the gendered division of labor will take over and the boys will be the ones taking apprenticeships while the girls will assist their mothers. Since the men of Amish communities generally work in agriculture and crafts (woodcrafts and other more laborious craft pursuits) the boys will trail their fathers and learn their trade. The girls will help their mothers with homemaking and if the family has a business such as a shop, crafting network (for profit), or a restaurant as many Amish do in recent times, the girl will assist her mother and sisters there. This period of “apprenticeship" will last for some time based on one of the most important rites of passage in an adolescent Amish community member’s life, rumspringa. During this period called rumspringa, an adolescent is allowed to experiment with the modern lifestyle of the outside world. By the end of this period of rumspringa (which is generally around a year for most young people) they can make the decision of whether or not they wish to be baptized into the Amish community or if they would rather join the “outside world."
Parents are not to try to have any direct effect over the young person’s decision but in some of the most strict communities, if the young person decides to leave the Amish community they are shunned. Shunning is a practice in which the person who has either left the community or violated it in some way is outcast by his or her family and treated as a virtual non-entity. The practice of shunning varies among Amish sects in terms of the degree of severity but because of its existence, the young person’s decision to leave after the period of rumspringa could result in a lifetime of non-contact with the only family and friends he or she has ever known. In general, all of the years of socialization lead up to this point of Rumspringa (popularized in the documentary film “Devil’s Playgound). Since Amish children are not baptized at birth, this is their chance to claim their own identity and this is a fitting practice for a religion that does not proselytize (Blake 3).
Because of the process of community identification given to young people, the community can remain cohesive since only those who wish to be present are. By punishing those who violate important doctrine or voluntarily leave, the Amish maintain a very tight-knit social structure. Their economy is based on a more or less communal sense of work and duty and since the avoidance of pride or the gathering of many material possessions by one person is thought to be vain, they are more or less an egalitarian society. This system is also preserved because they do not involve themselves with the affairs of the state or federal government if at all possible. They do not believe in insurance and although some seek medical treatment at modern facilities, they generally prefer to keep everything within the community.
As a result of their long-standing traditions, the federal government does allow them some lenience with the raising of their children and despite a few skirmishes about child labor practices and the age at which children must attend school, they are mostly left alone, even though they do pay property taxes. They do not seem to see a need to defend their lifestyle and do not general get involved with the court systems for any reason. Their purpose is to keep themselves together by means of strengthening their community and thus they are wholly unconcerned with the more consumer-based, privatized, and generally self-centered world of modern America. They raise their children to believe in these core ideals and offer them the chance for a different life as well instead of forcing them, by proxy of inheritance, to live a life devoted to the community. Their community is thus sustained by these principles of simplicity, avoidance of pride, and egalitarian values and thus in order to best preserve them they must take great care in raising children with the same set of values.