cute-chihuahuaWhat would you do if the family pet started behaving badly–at the worst possible moment–at dinner in an Amish home?

Jim Cates shares some humorous–and revealing–mealtime stories in today’s post on the importance of the Amish family. Are Amish and English families as different as we might think?

Family: The Building Block of Amish Life

Writer Nancy Mitford once said “The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life’s essential unfairness.” Whether they consider their experience unfair is open to interpretation, but unquestionably, Amish family members develop a sense of self based on interactions with others, learning to yield their own desires.

Donald Kraybill, Ph.D., has estimated that an Amish individual with an average complement of sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins will have roughly 250 individuals considered “family” in the near vicinity.

Compare that number with those of us who clog the airports at holidays to reunite with a few loved ones on the annual trek home. It is not just the relationships that make a difference, but the very concept of “family” that is an experience unlike ours when the sheer numbers become so prolific.


I have known one young man for several years and watched his progress through the Amish community with interest. He is extremely intelligent, and spent much of his early adolescence and Rumspringa driving his parents to distraction with an interest in technologies clearly forbidden by their Ordnung. After joining the church he continues to work with leased computers, and is frankly more facile with apps and programs than I will ever be.

We have talked at length about his decision to join the Amish church. He believes that he could practice his Christianity in another, less conservative sect. And he speaks longingly of the opportunity to attend college and obtain a degree in engineering or computer science. However, to leave the Amish would be to leave his family, and that he is not willing to do.

A Human Core

Family is the core of Amish life, the building block from which church, settlement, and culture emerges. Family is also very human. There are tensions, conflicts, and more and less charming personalities, as is true with any group of people. And still the sense of collective purpose and cohesion that makes the Amish culture unique begins there.

As an outsider, my closest observations of family life have come when I have been invited to share meals, at weddings, and funerals. The solemnity of the morning service for a wedding is replaced by a much lighter mood in the afternoon and evening as the bride and groom celebrate a meal with family and friends. It is an occasion when one senses the beneficence of family members as one of their own journeys through the rite of passage into “settling down” and beginning their own addition to the extended group.

In contrast, the viewing and funeral are a time of more somber support. Family is a quiet presence, subdued but powerful, reminding those who are grieving that they are far from alone. In both settings the community plays an essential role as well, but family is the central focus.


Meals are social events, given to conversation as much as eating. They represent a time when the family takes a moment away from the activities of the day to share with each other. Perhaps because these are more boisterous times, or simply more relaxed, they are also those in which the tensions and humor of family life seem most apparent to an outsider.

I recall eating with one family when their son, well into Rumspringa and wearing English clothes, came late to the meal. Rather than join us, he sat on a stool at the counter, laughing and talking, and fully sharing in the conversation.

After dessert had been served, we had engaged in the silent prayer that ended the meal, and his sisters had begun to clear the dishes, he prepared a plate from food on the stove, and sat with us at the table as we drank coffee, still chatting amiably. Initially I assumed his “refusal” to eat with us was one-sided, a mild form of adolescent defiance. Only later did I learn that his mother disapproved of his English clothes, and would not allow him to eat with the family while he wore them.

Disruptions do not always pass as quietly. I was once eating with a large group of Amish, including an influential bishop and his wife, who were seated to my left. On my right was an adolescent just entering Rumspringa, proudly (yes, proudly) holding his cell phone, although carefully concealed in his lap. In mid-meal I heard his older brother, to this youngster’s right, stifle a giggle.

I glanced down to see this youngster displaying a cartoon on his phone that was indeed very funny and very inappropriate. Unfortunately I was not as successful in stifling my laughter, which caused his brother to laugh aloud. While we laughed uncontrollably, the cause of this commotion looked from one to the other as if we had lost our minds. There are indeed advantages to having older siblings and learning how to appear “innocent.”


In still another meal setting, I had earlier befriended the family Chihuahua. As we sat for the meal and bowed our heads for silent prayer, the dog jumped into my lap and began licking my face. Uncertain about the protocol for overly friendly pets during silent prayers I sat still, which provoked laughter from the children around the table.

Amish family life then, is much akin to English family life. There are moments of celebration and sorrow, parents are forced to set limits, and children and dogs misbehave.

However “family” becomes not just a few people to whom one is especially close. Family is a network tied by blood, by sect, and by the collective awareness that separation from the world makes them unique. This extended group creates a cohesion that is primary in the collective bond that extends from here to the church, the community, and beyond.

Jim Cates is the author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at

Image credits: dog- avrenim_acceber/flickr; Amish images- ShipshewanaIndiana

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