A few years ago the word rumspringa was all the rage on reality TV. But what does the word really mean? There has been so much on TV and in Amish novels that it can be tough to separate fact from fiction. But we'll unpack some of the myths and facts here about this misunderstood aspect of Old Order Amish life.
📺 Rumspringa and Reality
Rumspringa is a German/Pennsylvania Dutch term roughly translated as “running around.” And if you believed mainstream media you’d think every Amish teenager went through rumspringa. Not so. Rumspringa is largely a media-manufactured confection. ABC News described rumspringa in a news article:
“Rumspringa” is a period of time when Amish teenagers are allowed to leave the community and live in the modern world before deciding whether they want to join the Amish church for good. Rumspringa literally means “running around” in Pennsylvania Dutch. During Rumspringa, teenagers will experiment with televisions, cars, cell phones, music and movies before making their decisions.
The above definition is very typical of how various media describe rumspringa. But the definition is a huge oversimplification. Having spent over 30 years visiting Amish settlements all over the USA I’ve never even heard an Amish person use the word “rumspringa.” (the New Order Amish tend to have fewer issues with rumspringa ad the Mennonite church is so varied that it's tough to apply this to that church).
The vast majority of Amish teens plan to stay in their faith and never really experiment with leaving the church (the retention rate is somewhere close to 90 percent). One of the purposes of rumspringa is to allow Amish teens to "sow some oats" and explore a bit. But this is not as widespread as some literature makes it seem. The 2002 documentary "Devil's Playground" focused on Amish teens going through rumspringa, but they were focused on the exceptions more than the rules.
Yes, some do go through this period, but they are the minority. Before rumspringa became a reality TV buzzword the word was used primarily to describe “rebellious behavior” typical of ANY teenager (Amish or non). This rebellious behavior might be as harmless as egging a passing buggy or toilet-papering someone’s yard. This would be considered rumspringa behavior.
Again, some Amish teenagers do leave and they experiment with cars, computers, and jobs, but this is the minority. Typical Amish rumspringa behavior might involve drinking alcohol, getting a Facebook account and perhaps dressing in non-Amish clothing. Typical teenage behavior. That’s what rumspringa generally is.
Now, one last component that the media latches on to: the parents will often give their teens wide latitude in experimenting with behaviors. Since baptism into the church doesn’t come until later anyway, these Amish youth aren’t technically breaking any church rules at such a young age. And cracking down on bad behaviors can often just push the teen away even more. Best let them experiment and see for themselves the limitations of the outside world. This strategy is obviously effective because over 90 percent of Amish teens ultimately stay within the faith.
🙋♂️ FAQ Asked Questions About Amish Teens
Yes, they can and they do. But it’s not a terribly common occurrence. Amish culture is built around family. Family bonds and family ties are very close and strong. An Amish teenager who leaves is leaving behind parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and pets. It’s not easy, nor desirable, to just leave Amish culture is built around family. Family bonds, family ties, are very close. An Amish teenager who leaves, is leaving behind siblings, aunts, uncles, of course, parents, pets, it’s just not easy, nor desirable, to just “leave"
In rare cases an Amish youth will want to get out and explore the world and the parents will turn the other way and let them do that. But it’s not common.
Yes, but getting a job is often not seen as rebellious or rumspringa behavior, it’s often just an Amish teenager wanting to earn some money, experience a little independence, and gain some skills, and this is usually done with parental approval. I’ve gone into McDonald’s and seen Amish young women working the registers and computers with more efficiency and skill than I ever could. Below, an Amish teenager works in a busy doughnut shop in Indiana.
Below are some Amish teenage boys in Montana working as ranch-hands in a cattle drive.
The vast majority of Amish teenagers stop school after the eighth grade. There are some exceptions. I’ve seen Amish in some Kansas church districts, for instance, going to beyond the eighth grade. These were young women who wanted to go on to become teachers. But this is by far the exception, most Amish after the eighth grade begin to learn a trade, work with their parents, or apprentice somewhere,
☮️ Examples of Typical Amish Teenage "Rebellion" (Rumspringa)
Buggy Bling: just as teenagers in public high schools will often show their individuality by personalizing their lockers with stickers and ornaments, Amish teens do the same with their buggies. It’s not uncommon to see a pair of fuzzy dice hanging down from the mirror in an Amish buggy. Or stickers on their buggy, or something flashy just to get attention.
Social Media/Multimedia: it’s not terribly uncommon to find Amish youth on Facebook, or even TikTok. Years ago before social media, I remember taking a drive outside of Middlefield Ohio and seeing an approaching buggy. A glint of sunlight caught my eye from quite a distance, but as the buggy approached I could see what the glint was from. The sun was beaming down on a portable boom box that an Amish teenage boy had in his buggy. He was wearing a cool pair of shades, shirt unbuttoned at the top, it was just Amish teenage boy being an Amish teenage boy. Mobile phones are also much more common among Amish teens than adults.
Alcohol: this is something you see more in some Amish communities than others, but yes, drinking and partying is a part of some Amish young people's rite of passage. Certainly not every Amish teenager. But it does happen. There can be large parties in barns, outbuildings, hunting cabins, or private homes, and it’s not uncommon at all to find alcohol (generally, cheap beer) at these parties. Sometimes they can get very out of hand. Police and authorities can get called.
Photos/Selfies: While the Amish still generally forbid and discourage personal photography, that isn’t so for Amish teenagers who aren’t technically bound by church rules yet. Also, the overall view about photography among the Amish is changing and evolving. There’s more acceptance. But among Amish teens, there is definitely more acceptance. Not uncommon to see selfies and selfie sticks making the rounds!
Clothing: sometimes Amish kids will abandon their plain clothing that is a hallmark of the Amish lifestyle during this time. I remember being in a parking lot once when I saw a couple of Amish girls arrive by car. The Amish girl was driving. They both changed clothes in the car and emerged wearing T-shirts and jeans as they headed to a country concert.
But I can’t overstate the vast majority of Amish teens, at least that I have seen in my personal experience, are well-mannered, more than willing to help at home, and get through their adolescent years with not much more of an issue than any other teen
The biggest beef I have with a lot of rumspringa literature out there is that it makes it seem as if rumspringa is a formal period of life that an Amish youth enters when they hit a certain age. That’s not the case at all. There is no rumspringa requirement. Most Amish teens don’t do it. Now, there is an age, and it varies by community, sometimes it’s 13, sometimes it’s 15, when an Amish teen can "running around with the young people “and that usually just means sitting with one another at church, attending Sunday evening signings, or play volleyball.