NPR

Rumspringa: Amish Teens Venture into Modern Vices

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.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The Amish country: Lancaster County in Pennsylvania; Shipshewana, Indiana; Holmes County, Ohio. Every year, millions of people visit to see overflowing bushels of apples, quiet farms, and picturesque horse-and-buggy rigs meandering down country lanes and to glimpse a simpler way of life that vanished everywhere else.

For the Amish, family, community and church trump technology and convenience, but church doctrine insists that only informed and consenting adults can be baptized. When Amish kids turn 16, they enter a period of life called rumspringa, when the community encourages them to experience what they call the world of the English.

For most, this is pretty mild - chaperones, sing-alongs, a trip to the local movie theater, maybe a little TV - but for some, rumspringa is all about drugs, sex, fast cars, and rock and roll.

Unidentified Woman: I wish I could say that I have never opened a can of beer. You know, that would be great. I wish I could say that, but I can't.

(Soundbite of music)

Every time there was a party, I was there and I was drunk. I was just hanging out with anybody I wanted to, going out with any guy I wanted to. Who cares?

CONAN: Well, of course, their parents care, but they also hope that after running wild for a while, their children will see the wisdom of the old ways and come back to the church, but does it work? How does it work? And what can the rest of us learn about raising our own children?

If you have questions about this Amish rite of passage, maybe if you grew up in an Amish community, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@NPR.org. Later in the program, banning racism at the World Cup, and a major break in the federal investigation of steroid use in baseball. But first, rumspringa.

Joining us now from our bureau in New York is author and documentarian Tom Shachtman. His new book, Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish, is available today. And, Tom, it's nice to have you on the program.

Mr. TOM SHACHTMAN (Author, Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you write that, effectively, Amish parents, indeed, the Amish community, takes a tremendous risk with their children.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Sure, it's really a risk to let your kids out into the world after they've been sheltered - well, really tremendously sheltered for 16 years of their lives, and then all of a sudden, when they know absolutely nothing about the outside world, to sort of give them a chance to get out there and to withhold all sort of comment and criticism while you're doing that, so that they can get some experience in the world and hopefully - well, at least the parents hope and the church hopes - they'll come back to the church.

CONAN: And does it work?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, the statistics show that it really does. I mean, there's something like 80-plus percent of the kids who go out, eventually do what they call join church, which is come back, be baptized, and more or less to usually get married around the same time that they're baptized.

CONAN: Yet this is a difficult process for many, particularly say - as you say, they're not ready for a lot of the temptations of the world.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, I think we don't really understand how unready they are, because we live in a world in which the media are all around us. We listen to NPR, I hope...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHACHTMAN: ...and we have television, we have movies, we have CDs, we have the Internet, we have people that we talk to who are not just like us. And this readies our own children for the world, and it's sort of a way that creeps up on you. But the Amish kids have virtually very little of it. They have some of it, but not very much. And then all of a sudden, they're opened to everything, and it's really a difficult time.

CONAN: And as we say for a large number, this does not get very wild; but for a large number, it does.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, it - I can't tell you what the percentages are of people who engage in what we're calling wild behavior and those who don't. It's a good percentage on each side. There are lots of kids for - Amish kids, for whom rumspringa is basically a time in which to go out and try and find a young person of the opposite sex to hook up with and marry, who has the proper background.

And those kids do a lot of going to Sunday singings and maybe they'll go to a bowling alley, or they may do some activities that are loosely supervised, but they're not off on their own doing wild and crazy things.

And on the other hand, there are a good number of them who do just that, wild and crazy stuff. But in my view, it's a little bit tame because they - while they may go and they could get themselves pregnant or they could get themselves completely smashed or that kind of stuff, they don't go to Tibet and find out what it would be to live like a Buddhist or they don't go to San Francisco and take art courses or anything like that. I mean, they don't go that far from home.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You tell the story of - and a lot of your book, indeed, is drawn from a documentary film, which is where we're getting the tape for this broadcast - but you tell the story of a kid named Ely(ph) who, you know, was drifting away a little bit and found himself in deep trouble. He bought a car and got himself into an accident.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, Ely was just the youngest son of a large family in the middle of Ohio. And his father had a machine repair shop, what they call small machine repair, and he was in rumspringa. And his brothers before him had been in the shop and then they'd gone on to other jobs, and he was sort of the last apprentice. And he would - he didn't get along well with his father, and he was afraid he'd never amount to much.

And, you know, he was thinking he finally saved up enough money to buy a car, and he was going to take that car and go and maybe apply for a job at a factory about 15, 20 miles away, which is something you can't do if your only transportation is a horse and buggy.

But one weekend night, he had a tremendous accident on the road, shoved another car off the road, and most of the people were okay in his car, and he was okay, physically; but the people in the other car had some serious accidents, and they were, quote, "English," which means tourists in that area of the world.

And he was going to have a lot of problems, not just a DUI on his license but -of course, he had no insurance, and what was he going to do? So he was very scared, and then his dad shows up at the jail and says to him, look, we're going make a deal here. We'd like you to come back and join the church and be a regular guy and in the community. And, in exchange, the community is going to help pay all these bills, and you'll pay it back over a period of 10 years.

And he said, okay, and it was really okay with him; and it was a good thing in that sense. It may have forced him to make a decision that he was going to make anyway, but it really helped. And he thinks that, in a certain way, it had saved his life as well as been a crisis for him.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and it talks about some of the power of the community. They're willing to pay his bills, as well. Well, let's...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: No, they're not - it's not that they're willing to pay his bills. I mean, they're loaning him the money, and he's paying it back. Almost all of it paid off by now. But it's very important for the community to have new members. If they don't have them, they're not going to survive.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255; 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And we'll begin with Melvin(ph). Melvin calling from Syracuse in Indiana.

MELVIN (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MELVIN: My comment was regarding the fact that you said that at the outset of your program that parents are concerned about this, and they are to a degree, but every one knows it goes on. They condone it. In a sense, they encourage it by allowing the kids to have parties on their farms, even in their homes. And the thing is that every year probably, oh, a handful of Amish youth - you know, the number varies from year to year - die in accidents, such as the one that was just mentioned.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MELVIN: Or drug overdoses, and yet it continues. The church doesn't speak out against it, parents don't speak out against it. The community doesn't speak out against it. Everybody kind of turns a blind eye to it because of the benefits of having the Amish community in your area.

CONAN: Tom Shachtman, I guess that's part of the risks you're talking about?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, it is. I don't know that those accidents are directly related to the kids going out and being wild. There are plenty of accidents that take place all the time when people are sober or not sober. And there are lots of accidents also that involve cars swiping buggies on the road. You read of those almost every month. In all of the Amish communities, it's one of the dangers they face, simply because the rest of the world is not moving at the same speed that they are.

But Melvin is basically correct. This is something that the Amish parents and community - they don't exactly condone it, they sort of allow it. They don't like it. They feel that when the kids eventually do come back and do join the church that they're going to...

MELVIN: Well, if I may...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: ...have to make amends for it.

MELVIN: Excuse, if I may.

CONAN: Okay, go ahead, Melvin.

MELVIN: If I may, they do condone it. They do even, in some ways, encourage it because they allow it to continue to go on. I've spoken with Amish parents that I work with in a factory. And they have said that when their kids turn 16, they have to allow it, because they view that as an age of accountability. And they will allow their children to go out and party. They know it's going to happen, and they continue to allow it to happen.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I think we're just talking a little semantic difference here. You're quite correct, Melvin; this happens all the time. And they do allow it. They don't like it, but they allow it.

CONAN: Melvin, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

MELVIN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Tom Shachtman, as this process goes on, though, inevitably, some kids will drift away. And as you talk about in the book, the Amish way of life is changing. This is no longer a farm-based community.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yes, that's absolutely true. I mean, our stereotypical idea of the Amish is that somebody out on a farm with a cornstalk between their teeth. And this is not true anymore. There are the same absolute number of Amish farmers as there have been, but the sect itself has exploded tremendously, now somewhere around 200,000 people. And there are certainly not 200,000 farmers.

Most of the Amish today, most Amish males, work what they call off the farm. Lots of them in Indiana work in factories that make recreational vehicles. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, they do a lot more things like carpentry and small engine work and that sort of stuff. There are businesses that are being started in all of it. And lots of this is, as they say, off the farm.

This is a problem for the Amish, because they're society is very rural based. And a lot of the - not the theology especially, but some of the some of the things they believe in and the ways of life that they have adopted really have to do with farm-based things.

And this is going to change. It's going to change increasingly not because there are going to be fewer farmers, but because the percentage of farmers is going down, so that the entire sect is going to have to adapt to that.

CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break. If you'd like to join our conversation with Tom Shachtman about his book, Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish, give us a call: 800-989-8255; e-mail is talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

When Amish kids turn 16, the rules change. They're encouraged to explore and experiment in the outside world in a ritual called Rumspringa. The hope is they'll eventually make the decision to come back to their church. We're talking about this coming-of-age ritual, whether it works and what the rest of us can learn form it.

Tom Shachtman is the author of a new book called, Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish. And he's with us in our bureau in New York. Clips from the Devil's Playground documentary that inspired his book, including a close-up look of some Amish teens' experience with Rumspringa, are at npr.org. You can also read a brief excerpt form the book online at the TALK OF THE NATION page.

If you would like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255 and the e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And let's turn to Michael(ph). Michael calling from Ithaca, New York.

MICHAEL (Caller): Oh, hello, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MICHAEL: Okay, what I'd like to - I've seen that film, and what I'd like to suggest is that these children are actually set up to fail and to return to the church. They're so unprepared that they see the outside world as a place of drunkenness and licentiousness, which is what they're taught to see. And as a result, they do exactly what they're expected to do, which is experience it that way, find it unsatisfactory, and return to the church.

CONAN: Tom Shachtman.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I think he's right. And in some senses they are certainly set up to fail. However, there's a certain percentage that certainly don't return or -and they're on both ends of the spectrum. These are the best and the brightest of some of them, who decide not to come back. And then there are others who were who have other reasons for not coming back, a lot of them very materialistic reasons; that they'd like to have more stuff on the outside then they think they're going to be permitted to have in the inside.

But the basic point is well taken. They're unprepared; these are kids who haven't - at 16, have already been out of school for a year or two, because they finish up in the eighth grade, or the equivalent of the eighth grade.

MICHAEL: But what do they learn in school?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: They have a pretty good education...

MICHAEL: ...to get from their school...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: They have a fairly good education up to that point.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I'm sorry, sir. They have a fairly good education up to that point, although it isn't what I would like, because they don't have much science, they don't have a certain kind of history. They don't have certain things that might be disagreed with, but they're basically...

MICHAEL: The question is what do they see the outside world as?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, I think they see the outside world both as opportunity and as a playground for the devil. They have both of these things that are out there. Most of the kids go out wanting to enjoy, wanting to experience and not necessarily having decided whether or not to come back.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I think they are, as you pointed out, hampered when they go out because - or handicapped, I think might be a better way of putting it - because they don't have a lot of tools that other kids at 16 might have. They have been out of school for a couple of years. They have no capital. They have no ways of getting anywhere. And they have very few different frames of reference, other than that...

MICHAEL: Exactly, I saw that documentary and I was appalled at what the range of opportunities they thought they had.

CONAN: Well, let me follow up on Michael's point, Tom Shachtman, and ask: One of the fundamental tenets of the church is that to be baptized into the church, unlike baptism that we're all - most of us are familiar with at - shortly after birth. They say you must be a conformed, consenting adult by the time you're baptized.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yes, and I'd like to add to that. They're also supposed to be repentant. And you really can't be these things, informed, consenting and repentant, unless you have been out in the world somewhat. So, whereas there are some communities that don't use the Rumspringa process, it seems to me a very logical extension of their way of belief to have this out there. The question of do they get enough experience to really make an informed decision and a repentant one...

CONAN: Michael...

MICHAEL: I would say no...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I think, I think for most of them they do. They understand what they're going back to. They've lived with it all their lives. And they desire it in some way. Like I think...

MICHAEL: Of course they desire it, because the alternative...

CONAN: Michael...

MICHAEL: ...are limited.

CONAN: Michael, we're going to give somebody else a chance, we appreciate the call, though.

MICHAEL: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: The deck is stacked, but that doesn't mean that their choices are not free.

CONAN: Let's turn to Tim(ph). Tim calling from Ashland in Oregon.

TIM (Caller): Yeah, thanks you so much for taking my call. And very interesting topic. I wanted to observe that what the Amish have done is kind of incorporate what, in fact, is very common in human development. And that is, at a certain age, you test limits. It's what I all The Iliad and The Odyssey effect, that you go out and you experiment at a certain age.

They do this in Europe between high school and entering university or a technical school, or what have you, or going into work. Very commonly, they'll put on a backpack, buy a Euro Rail pass and trek Europe for a year. And it's something that we're, as a culture in the United States, are very poor at. We don't feature it institutionally very well, but it happens nonetheless.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TIM: And because we don't do it, we don't recognize this as an essential feature of human development, leaving the home and testing limits and experimenting; it creates a whole bunch of social problems for us. But, in fact, it's pretty common informally.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I think you're right about that. But there is a sense here that, in the larger society, that we have prolonged adolescence longer than any other society in human history. There're some people that feel that adolescence really doesn't end until people graduate college or graduate graduate school, or get married. And some people say adolescence doesn't really end until a couple has children.

So that, in the larger society, the Amish society starts to be adult much earlier. They become parents - a lot of them are parents by the time they're in their very early 20s. They're grandparents by the time they're in their 40s. So this is just sort of a condensed period. And that's what Rumspringa is - it's essentially a condensed adolescent period. And that's why it's so turbulent, and that's why it's so explosive and difficult for the kids that are involved in it.

TIM: Yeah, I very much agree that, again, in this country we've extended adolescence and we've created a mass higher education system that kind of cocoons people, but it's also the stage at which a lot of that experimentation does take place. As an academic myself - and I've taught 25 years in higher education - I can tell you, not a lot of students are actually studying, certainly at the undergraduate level, there's this other form of education, going on...

CONAN: Yeah, they may not be studying the stuff for your course, but they're learning stuff.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Extracurricular education is what we call it.

CONAN: Yeah. Tom(ph) - excuse me, Tim, thanks very much for the call.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Patrick(ph). Patrick, in Toledo.

PATRICK (Caller): Yes, hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

PATRICK: Yeah, the - my only complaint is it's just a perpetuation of the idea of them being so isolated and very quaint and so on and that they - the Amish are much wiser about the world around them. It's not uncommon to see radios in buggies. Check out the names that they name their children, they're very much aware of pop culture. They're very much aware of the world around them. And it's like we stereotype them with this very quaint image that, you know, they're not. I mean, they're people like everyone else.

CONAN: Yeah, Tom Shachtman, you point out that these kids, even at the age of 16, know the words to all the tunes.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, they know the words to some of them. But I think even more important is that they're out there working in the wider world. You can't go to work every day in an RV factory alongside people who are not Amish and come from various backgrounds and not absorb some of this.

I mean, it's out there to be absorbed if possible, and they do this when they're - remember the Amish are not people who shut themselves away from the world. They're people who say they are in the world, but not of the world. They're focus is on - is in a different way, but that does not mean that they are not out there in the rest of the world; it's not a gated community.

CONAN: Yeah, and it's interesting you say, those who visit do see what Patrick's describes as this quaint society. And, Tom Shachtman, you say they don't see what, in fact, truly distinguishes the Amish from the rest of us, and that is their inner life.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: They have a tremendous inner life, but it's very oriented towards religious things. There's virtually nothing that an Amish person does that some thought has not gone into it about what it is that they're doing and what is their relationship is to that and to their God and to the things that they believe that God demands and requests of them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Patrick, thanks.

PATRICK: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk now with, Jeanine(ph). Jeanine is with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JEANINE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Jeanine. You're on the air.

JEANINE: Oh, hi. Yeah, I just wanted to point out with - my mother was raised old order Amish. I'm originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And I think one of the things that you need to kind of keep in mind when you're discussing rumspringa and, you know, the problems that the kids are having is the Amish community is going to try and take care of it itself. It's not going to come out openly and say ok, we have a problem. They take care of things - they - by themselves. They're not going to openly come out for help.

CONAN: Hmm.

JEANINE: It's part of the way they run themselves by their own little community within the community they live in. And I think it's something that we kind of need to keep in mind, that, you know, maybe have tools available that they can access, but they're not going to openly come out and say we need help with this. I think...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I have to disagree a little bit. You're basically correct. That is its usual attitude of most of the communities. However, I've been in several where they have actually reached out to outside professionals for counseling to help kids through this process and to help their families through the process as well.

I mean, the objective of the families and of the church, which is behind the families, is to bring the children back in, is to have them become informed Amish adults and to keep the sect going and to keep it as pure as possible. And this - there are - we all make bargains in life as we grow older and we decide how we're going to live and in what way and what manner and towards what end. And the Amish society has answers for all of that, and they need to have the kids either become comfortable with it or decide not to come back.

JEANINE: Right.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: The worst thing that can happen is for the kids to come back and later on to decide, no, I really didn't want to do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Because that's when they leave and then they become shunned. And it's very difficult, because then they're not allowed to communicate with the parents in the ways that they have been. And it's a real heartbreaker all around.

So anything that can be done to prevent that, even if it means children leaving the sect permanently before they become baptized is more okay, or I should say less bad, than somebody coming back, being baptized and then deciding that they want to leave at a later date.

JEANINE: Right.

CONAN: Interesting the word shun. And here's a clip from the documentary, one of the women explaining how shunning works.

(Soundbite of movie “Devil's Playground”)

Unidentified Woman: After I left the Amish church, I was shunned. If you join the church and then leave, they will shun you. The shunning for them is their last way of showing you they love you. They think that you're breaking a promise that you made to the Amish church. They're afraid for your soul.

CONAN: Again, another excerpt from the documentary. Afraid for your soul. Showing their way to love you. At the same time this is a very effective disciplinary element is it not, Tom?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, it's a real tough-love. And, by the way, we should say that this is a last step, not a first step. They like to try and do everything possible to avoid taking this step, if they can. People who stray are - the Amish are very big on forgiveness. They'd like to have people there, rather than not to have them there.

But they do have rules and their rules have to be adhered to. And the point about their baptism and entering the church is that you agree to live by the rules, which is something that someone who's baptized as an infant, for example, could not possibly agree to. So that's one of the reasons that they believe in only adult baptism.

CONAN: We're talking with Tom Shachtman about his book, Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish. You're listening to...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Neal, may I make an observation here, which is that the book goes far beyond what the documentary did. The documentary only lasted an hour on the air, and there's 400 hours of interviews there. And I did so many more after that. So it's a much larger context than the documentary itself, although that was a springboard for it.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's get Katrina(ph) on the air. Katrina calling from San Antonio.

KATRINA (Caller): Yes. I am from San Antonio, but I have family in Pennsylvania. And I went up there to visit and the Amish may be up on their pop culture, but when they actually go out, I've (unintelligible) seen how they mistreat - how regular teenagers mistreat the Amish children or teenagers by being really mean to them and just doing really sad stuff that shouldn't be done.

CONAN: Hmm. They stick out do they?

KATRINA: They stick out very much. And I mean, I've seen them do things like -they thought it was funny to urinate in the guy's beer or do things after he passed out because he drank.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATRINA: And these teenagers in these towns know when the Amish come to their parties.

CONAN: Yeah. Tom Shachtman, of course, another part of adolescence is that kids can be very cruel, but maybe, you know, this is part of the process.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Oh, I don't know that it's process that we need to have. There certainly is some discrimination that goes on. Kids in the Amish group are thought of as stupid when they're not; they may be unlettered, but they're certainly not stupid nor are they completely naïve. They just may be naïve about certain things that mainstream American teenagers are not naïve about.

However, they're much more mature in many other ways. I doubt that most American 14 or 15-year-olds, mainstreamers, know how to work as hard as the Amish do or study or do they have a command of at least two languages - their own English and the Pennsylvania Dutch that they all speak.

So they are discriminated against here and there. That's why they tend to stay in areas where they have a fairly dominant presence and to look askance at interactions with the outside world, especially with kids of their own age. But there are lots of communities where the predominant number of Amish kids do go to public schools and they interact with the non Amish all the time.

CONAN: Katrina, thanks very much for the call.

KATRINA: Thank you.

CONAN: We just have a minute or so left with you, Tom Shachtman, but I wanted to ask; as you've been going through this process of this book over - I guess it's been five, six, seven years at this point - did you go back and find out what happened to some of these kids? I was intrigued by their...

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Some, but it's a little bit difficult. Once they go back inside the church, they don't really want to speak with outsiders anymore. I did speak with a number of people and grown-ups as well, and I found that the ones who have gone back inside generally have a sort of a settling in period of a few years. But by the time that they get in to their mid-20s and they're parents themselves and so on, they're very comfortable with it and many of them expand into the opportunities that are there in the Amish community today, which are actually expanding.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thanks very much for being with us. It's been very nice of you to join us.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Tom Shachtman's new book is called Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish. And he joined us today from out bureau in New York.

When we come back from a short break, kicking racism out of the World Cup, at long last. Plus, a big break in the sad story of steroids and baseball. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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