Perhaps our American Dabblers might know about Rumspringa – it sounds like the sort of thing we should be offering to British teens in the hope that they could get it all out of their system in one go…

Rumspringa is a term for an adolescent right of passage observed in some Amish communities. Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania German noun derived from the verb rumspringen (“to jump around”.) Not all Amish use this term, but in sects that do, Amish elders generally view it as a time for courtship and finding a spouse. A popular view exists by which the period is institutionalised, and the usual behavioral restrictions are relaxed, so that Amish youth can acquire some experience and knowledge of the non-Amish world.

The Rumspringa normally begins around the age of 14 to 16 and ends when a youth chooses baptism within the Amish church, or instead leaves the community. It is the period when the young person is regarded as having reached maturity, and is permitted to attend the Sunday night “sings” that are the focus of courtship among the Amish; according to Amish sources, a youth who dares to attend one of these events before reaching the age of sixteen might be forcefed warm milk from a spoon, as a good-natured reminder to observe the lines of status.

Not all youth diverge from custom during this period; approximately half in the larger communities and the majority in smaller Amish communities remain within the norms of Amish dress or behavior during adolescence. Almost ninety percent of Amish teenagers choose to be baptized and join the Amish church.

Some Amish youth do indeed separate themselves from the community, even going to live among the “English”, or non-Amish North Americans, experiencing modern technology and perhaps even experimenting with sex, alcohol and illegal drugs. Their behavior during this time represents no necessary bar to returning for adult baptism into the Amish church.

In some cases, patience and forbearance prevail, and in others, vigorous discipline. Far from an open separation from parental ways, the misbehavior of young people during the rumspringa is usually furtive, though often collective (this is especially true in smaller and more isolated populations). Groups of Amish adolescents may meet in town and change into “English” clothing, and share tobacco, alcohol and marijuana; girls may put on jewelry and cosmetics. They may or may not mingle with non-Amish in these excursions. The age is marked normatively in some Amish communities by allowing the young man to purchase a small “courting buggy,” or — in some communities — by painting the yard-gate blue (traditionally meaning “daughter of marriageable age living here”. There is some opinion that adolescent rebellion tends to be more radical, more institutionalized (and therefore in a sense more accepted) in the more restrictive communities.

In 2010, the Channel 4 broadcast a television documentary series entitled The Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers, focusing on five young Amish who traveled to the United Kingdom during their Rumspringa in order to participate in an arranged cultural exchange. In each episode the group stayed with British families of different socio-economic levels, living in turn on a South London council estate, the Kent countryside and even staying at a Scottish hunting estate. During their visit, they were introduced to diverse and unfamiliar things, including sex shops, street dance, single mothers, stabbing and street violence, rock music, beach parties, game shooting and polo.


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About Author Profile: Worm

In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

3 thoughts on “Rumspringa

    March 26, 2014 at 12:11

    Interesting piece Worm – and a timely reminder (to me) of why this programme from C4, and a couple of others cut from the same cloth, finally drove me away from TV for good – save for a bit of sport. In the relentless search for ratings, the C4 default position now seems to be to seek out the lower life-forms (Benefits Street, anybody?) and butt them up to their polar opposites, as in this piece of drek. Did, for instance, a tour of London have to include a visit to Soho sex-shops? The pearl in the cow-pat for me was the fact that the Amish refused to ‘cower in horror’ at the New Babylon (as, I imagine, the producers had hoped), and the English kids came across, not as knuckle-dragging sub-humans, but interesting and interested in a life-style so far removed from their own.

    • Worm
      March 26, 2014 at 12:45

      very true MM, also the same annoying straw-man combatant thing that makes R4’s today programme completely unlistenable for me

    March 26, 2014 at 21:37

    Unfortunately, American tv has discovered rumspringa, or perhaps has invented a particularly over-the-top lurid version of it. It has made the rounds of a bunch of shows, both “reality” and crime procedural, reaching its nadir in a recent episode of Bones. Hopefully, Bones has killed it.

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