By Kevin Williams
A few years ago the word rumspringa was all the rage on reality TV. 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 25 years visiting Amish settlements all over the USA I’ve never even heard an Amish person use the word “rumspringa.” 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). 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, getting a Facebook account and perhaps dressing a bit more rebelliously. 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, they aren’t officially 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 obviously is effective because, again, over 90 percent of Amish teens ultimately stay within the faith.
If anyone remembers the show Amish in the City back in, holy cow, 2004, that show was built around the idea of “rumspringa.”