How do Amish keep track of their grandchildren?

The following is taken from an anonymous obituary found in The Diary.  The gentleman in question, a Mr. Stoltzfus, was in his early 80s at the time of death.  According to the obit, among other relatives, Stoltzfus was survived by “98 grandchildren; 32 step-grandchildren; 143 great-grandchildren; numerous step-great-grandchildren”.

I am always amazed by numbers like these, which are not uncommon for Amish individuals, especially when they get up into their 8th decades and beyond.  The math is pretty simple.  Say the average Amish couple has 7 children with the last coming around age 40.

If those children average the same amount of children, by the time the youngest is 40, you’ve got around 50 grands, plus a crop of great-grands coming on strong. In some communities families average more, however–even 8 or 9 children.  No wonder it’s possible to have an Amish family as large as this.

Knowing your generations

A better title for this post might be; how well do Amish grandparents get to know their grandkids?  How many of Mr. Stoltzfus’s grandchildren really “knew” their grandfather?  How could they possibly?  And if you’re Mr. Stoltzfus, how do you even keep the names straight?  My guess is that you don’t, or you consult your church directory often.

The lovable modern stereotype is of the doting, spoiling grandparent.  Certainly Amish grandmas and grandpas indulge in this behavior too, but at some point you simply can’t pull it off.  The numbers don’t let you even if you wanted to.

Boiling it down further, how do large family relationships differ at the nuclear family level? Coming from a 2-child household, I have sometimes wondered about the nature of relationships in these larger families.  At times I was envious of friends with more siblings.  I also wondered about the dynamic in what were really “big” families to me, like my father’s, who grew up in a time when most of society seemed more Amish, so to speak, as one of 7 siblings himself.  Did dad get as much quality time with his mom as I did with mine?

large-amish-familiesClearly not all Amish families are as big as in Mr. Stoltzfus’s case.  Also, you might think more children = less time spent with each = a “poorer” individual relationship.  But even if there were a difference in the quantity, that doesn’t necessarily mean that quality of time spent is comparable in Amish families.

For example, as a recent guest at a (non-Amish, not my own) family get-together, I noticed that most of the children above infant age spent most of the time occupied with screens of some sort–either the big one in the corner pumping out holiday movies, or one of the handheld versions providing games and other entertainments.  Occasionally they surfaced to interact, in response to an adult’s question or to get another slice of cake.

In the Amish web

Amish children certainly have their own distractions, but it’s probably safe to say they don’t intrude as stealthily or aggressively.

However I’m not so sure that even with families of 8 or 10 children and dozens of grandchildren, Amish don’t actually spend more time together in terms of quantity as well.  As the authors of The Amish Way note, Amish children are raised in a “thick family web…Because Amish grandparents do not live in retirement communities, most of them see some of their grandchildren or great-grandchildren on a daily basis” (p. 121).

Not to mention the myriad other opportunities for interaction at work projects, school events, reunions, and so on.  If you spend a few days in a traditional Amish home, you know that people (usually family of some sort) are always about.

I suppose the nature of relationships in large Amish families vs. those in smaller non-Amish ones is up for debate.  One thing is for certain, though.  Those 250+ grands and great-grands of Mr. Stoltzfus weren’t getting a 20-dollar bill every birthday and Christmas like I used to.  Talk about a quick road to bankruptcy for grandpa!

Amish beach photo: Ryan Keene/flickr

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    1. Juanita Cook


      This many in one family could be a community all by its self. I can not even imagine having that many in my family in my life time.

    2. Once in awhile I will drive the scholars home from shul. I will stop at a grandparents house and let two or three grandchildren out so they can bring in firewood from the woodshed. This grandpa is the second Amishman that I ever met 31 years ago. I can count on no one bringing in my firewood.

    3. New York State of Mind

      I once knew an Irish Catholic Family that had 12 children. I came from a family of three. I don’t know what I would do with having 7 or 12 children. I admire those that do.

    4. The Challenge of Compiling an Amish Genealogy

      We knew Dr. Hugh Gingerich. He worked for the federal government in my husband’s office. He had Amish grandparents, and, I think, Amish parents. Anyway, one of his avocations was compiling an Amish genealogy. He loved puzzles and he sure got a run for his money. A lot of the records were hand-written in old script. Not only did he have multiple “Joseph Schmidt’s” to contend with. but he also told me–and this is strange–that the nicknames for “Margaret” and “Rebecca” appeared to be almost identical in old records.

    5. Roberta

      My father (Methodist) was one of 14 children and my mother (Catholic) was one of 11 children. My Dad’s oldest sister was old enough to be his mother and she did have children older than her youngest brothers and sisters. I think that Juanita is right; this kind of family is it’s own community which has both advantages and disadvantages. I think that the family members were close growing up but now it takes me a minute to remember the names of all my aunts and uncles and some of their children (my first cousins) would be 100 years old if they were alive.

      1. Huge sibling age gaps

        In the non-Amish population I’ve heard people with similar sibling age gaps (15-20 years) say that they do not feel really close to their much-older or younger sibling. That has always struck me as odd, and a little sad, though understandable. If when a late sibling is born an older one is already leaving home for college or “life in general”, I can see how they wouldn’t even be spending much of that formative time together, not to mention one is already an adult and the newbie is just beginning life. You’re closer to a parent in that situation. It’s one of the oddest sibling situations in my opinion.

    6. Tom

      Good Morning,
      Last Saturday I was visiting an Amish friend age 42 whose wife just had their 15 child. She gave birth 16 times and lost one. Two of the oldest are now married and will have children about the age of their youngest siblings. The conservative Amish communities I visit have larger families, generally 10 to 14 children. Having 5 grandchildren I feel blessed.

      1. If you browse through directories you can do the math and see that children well into the forties is not uncommon for Amish women. This is probably never spoken about openly (like most pregnancy-related topics), but I understand some do refrain from childbearing past a certain age on advice from doctors.

    7. Wm Justice

      How do Amish keep track of their grandchildren?

      Our first friend in the Randolph community who was in his 90s when he passed away had 10 children, just over 100 grandchildren and over 500 great grandchildren. In a children’s Sunday school class my wife taught the subject of families and children came up. She told the class about our friend with over 500 great grands. One little girl in the class was very troubled at hearing this and asked if he had to buy birthday presents every year for all of them. My wife then explained, as best she could, that our Amish friends do things a bit differently than we do about presents and such.
      Our friend’s nephew has 19 children and at last count had topped 180 grands. On my next visit with him I’ll be sure to get an updated count.
      Insofar as keeping up with families, marriages, births and deaths, I have seen some very large volumes of Amish genealogy owned by a family I know. I am not certain how often they are updated but the books are very detailed. I will get the names of the publications on my next visit.

      1. Expensive grandkids

        If your friend had been doing my theoretical $20 at Christmas and birthdays for the grands and great-grands, that would have been around a $25,000-per-year expenditure to do a little twice-yearly spoiling of his many descendants. Some Amish grandparents nowadays *might* be able to afford that but that is a very small minority 🙂 Not to mention the work of coordinating all the cards that would need to be sent out at the right time, etc. I think your wife told the little girl right about the Amish doing things a bit differently.

    8. Linda

      If Mr. Stoltzfus couldn’t keep the names of his grandchildren straight, maybe he could ask Mrs. Stoltzfus! As one of 50 grandchildren, my grandmother took an interest in me, even asking personal, embarrassing questions!

      In a large family, the cook does not have time to cater to the food whims, the likes and dislikes of each child. The children have to learn to eat what’s on the table.

      The children of a large family may have a stronger relationship with their siblings than with their parents. A child could find a playmate in their own family, and talk while working side-by-side.

      If you take a one-hour buggy ride without the distraction of cell phones, that should give some time for talking.

      A Mr. Wanner passed away in November, in his upper 70s. Five of his married children are Amish, but he was not Amish when he died. He had 17 children with his first wife, then she passed away. With his second wife, he had five more children. So he had 22 children (all living), 154 grandchildren, and 83 great-grandchildren, according to THE BUDGET. A large family. It seems like the numbers multiplied at the grandchildren level.

      Sometimes THE BUDGET has kept track of the total number of descendants a person had when he died, and there have been some very high numbers. Offhand, it seems like maybe 300 or 500, when the children and grandchildren numbers and great-grandchildren and great-greats were added up. At a family reunion, it’s amazing to think that all the people are present just because two individuals decided to get married.

      “Kinnah” means children. When one Amish widower married a widow with children, they had so many children they were called “Kinna Tobes.” I don’t know the number of grandchildren. THE BUDGET has an advertisement for a new book, DOWN MEMORY LANE TO KINNA TOBES, by Esther Weaver, 327 pages. This is what the ad says:
      “There were two families; one in IN, the other in OH. Circumstances and God’s leading brought them together into one big family: 14 Yoder children, 6 Shrocks, and 3 later additions makes 23. These children and their extended family share recollections about growing up. It’s quite a story! Sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, but always heartwarming.”

    9. Mary

      Having Amish roots, I come from a family of 9. My husband comes from a family of 14. He says they had so much fun they never had to go places to ward off boredom! My husband and I have 9, all married. I admit that it was difficult to give the individual child all the ‘undivided’ attention I would have loved to when they were small. We did more things corporately. We have 18 precious grandchildren. I can’t remember ALL of their birthdays so I have a ‘Birthday Calendar’ hanging on my bedroom wall with every family member’s birthdate written on. We are a close family and communicate regularly via email and facebook, in spite of being scattered from Africa to Montana, and several places inbetween. We average seeing each other several times a yr. except for those in Africa. My daus. tell me I am their best friend! (Even the one from Africa 🙂 )

      1. Great example Mary, thanks for sharing it. I bet the “undivided attention” challenge you mention can be a concern for moms and dads of large families. Seems you need to take a somewhat different approach as it sounds like you did.

    10. Don Curtis

      Amish families

      I’ve wondered about this myself. I asked my son Mark about it. He said that you have to understand that the family “freundschaft” is very important to the Amish. Socializing is done among the church members but it is the family or “clan” as Mark calls it that really is the most important for the Amish. Many families, Mark says, will have what they call “Sisters Day” once a month. the grandmother, all of her married daughters in the community, all of her married sons wives in the community will get together at one of their houses for the day. Any children not in school will be there. The women will do sewing for somebody in the family that has gotten behind on mending. Maybe they will clean the host’s house. Perhaps they will quilt. Then in evening the men will come and any of the school children or children that are working. They will all have supper together and spend the evening. This happens among many of the families in Mark’s community he says. Also, especially in the summer, family reunions are very common. Relatives coming to Belle Center or the Belle Center folks travling to a reunion somewhere else. Mark said that recently a man in the community who reached his 80th birthday his family had a suprise birthday party for him. All of his children and grandhildren came. A bus was chartered to come from Holmes County with all of his living siblings and their spouses and as many of their children and grandchildren that wanted to come. Strange as it may seem, the Amish do keep track of their children and grandchildren according to Mark.

    11. Karen Pollard

      Dawdy House

      I suspect since most grandparents live in an adjoining home to their son’s, they at least know the grandchildren of that family well.
      If they all visited regularly, you would know the names. I married into a large family after growing up an only child. When I was addressing wedding invitations, I thought I would never figure them all out. Big Catholic families with 6 or more children in each family, but as we became involved in family dynamics, reunions, picnics, etc. I did gradually learn the aunts and uncles and their children’s names. However, once the kids grew up and married, it was impossible-wayyyy too many names and branches to keep straight. I just always asked, “Now who do you belong to?” 🙂

    12. Rebecca

      Its true, it doesn’t matter how many kids a man has, he can still choose to spend some time with each of them in a loving way. My dad only had two kids and he chose to spend no time with either of them. God bless the Amish and the value they place on family.

    13. Alice Mary

      Who's counting?

      God bless (and keep sane, healthy, housed & fed) everyone who has more than 2 children (all I could handle)!

      The closeness & help offered by such large families are the reasons why, I’m, sure, coping is possible. If you don’t have someone to “pitch in” and help, raising even one child can be an overwhelming task, no matter how much they’re loved & cherished. It’s the cohesiveness and “being on the same page” that makes large families (especially Amish) grow & thrive.

      Still, those numbers are sure daunting to this “Englisher”!

      Alice Mary

    14. Linda

      This post makes me think of my Amish grandfather and how he always offered us classic Dawdy (Grandfather) candy when we visited. The candy mints were pink, round, large or thick, old-fashioned wintergreen mint lozenges.

      1. Mary

        My grandparents gave us grandchildren the exact same candy whenever we came to their house! After over a half century me and our children still call that ‘Daudy Candy’,(Grandfather Candy). The white candy we called Mummy candy,(Grandmother candy), and the pink we called Daudy candy!

        1. Amish Girl-Rebecca

          Mary & Linda,
          My Grampa handed out Daudy candy too. Good Memories !

    15. My mom was from a family of 7 and my dad from a family of 5 and we are 5 children in the family so while not as large as an Amish family I am used to big families and see them as the norm really. Us siblings have a total of 12 children and I have one this far. Being the youngest it’s me who will add to that number if anyone should and I hope to have at least one more child and hopefully 2 more. I have a big family and we are close although I live in another town 300 km away and the rest in my old hometown. I don’t like my hometown but every time I go there I envy my brothers and sisters who are able to meet at least once a week. Would I live closer to them I would meet them often as well but now it is just every other month or so.

      My husband’s family is totally different, he is an only child and has only 2 cousins (I have over 30). When we were having our child he talked about how lucky she was to have so many cousins and I was stunned, I have thought to myself a couple of days earlier how sad it was that my daughter would have hardly any cousins, just 11 of them… Funny how different perspectives can be.

    16. Rita

      I’m one of 25 grandchildren, spread out over 20 years. I find it interesting that we all have different memories of our grandparents, according to how active they were during our formative years. Some of us remember a very active farming experience, later ones remember the truck patch, quilting, making cider, butchering, homemade birthday cakes,etc, and the younger ones remember cuddling on Grandma’s lap and helping her around the house with Grandpa growling about one thing or another. But we all knew them pretty well, and I’m sure most of us think he or she was really the favorite one. I’m an only child and got more attention from my grandparents (who had to deal with a huge group of kids) than I did from my parents.

    17. Carolyn B

      Wow, I enjoyed reading this thread today.

      Erik, how many frequent to regular commenters do you have with Amish America? I’m thinking that you’re sort of a parent / grandparent who has to keep us all straight in your head.

      Thoroughly enjoyed the solutions to keeping the family straight. Did anyone mention keeping a family Bible updated? I like the idea of a Birthday/Anniversary Calendar to keep grands and extended family members straight and remembered each year.

      1. Good question Carolyn. I’ve not really counted; some folks comment for awhile, take a break, and appear again. Sometimes you see someone that hasn’t made an appearance in a long time show back up. It’s fun. I do try to keep everyone straight but comment search also helps.

    18. Annmarie

      Big families

      I love big families. I have 5 and would like at least one more. I think that the gift of siblings is one of the greatest gifts, I have given my kids. Along with love, time and dedication. I have taught them to enjoy all the great things in life that money can not buy. While individual attention is not the same in a household with a lot of children…it does exist. I go to all their sporting events and we enjoy praising them individually for their sport/school/ personal accomplishments. My children genuinely enjoy each other’s company and have learned to do chores and cooperate just sheerly based out of necessity. Parents can not do it all with a large amount of kids..but I think this is what has built such good character and discipline in my children. My eldest who was seeking colleges this past June decided on staying home bc her baby sis was only 3 and going away would have forfeited the loving relationship they share(along with some other good reasons). I admire Amish and their large families so much… And in this modernized world we live in-if only it is the gift of large families I can capture from a time gone by…I will try whole heartedly to hang on to that piece of the past. Family for me is truly the greatest gift of this world. I look forward to the day I am surrounded by tons of grandchildren 🙂

    19. Wills Kitchen

      Less distractions mean more time to ponder some things I reckon.

    20. Anisa

      I read recently that some psychologist stated that it is not the quantity of interactions that define attachment in a relationship but the quality of those interactions. I would think that Amish society would focus and emphasize that quality and that would make all of the difference when growing up one of some many.

      1. Stability of a constant presence

        I’m sure there is truth to that Anisa. On the other hand the security of a regular presence, even if interaction with those parents is not 24/7, seems to be pretty important. A lot of single parents do a heroic job but having to make up for, say, a missing father can’t be easy.

        Not only do Amish children benefit from stable presence of role models of mom and dad, they are also constantly exposed to other family member/role models. Dysfunction exists among the Amish as well, but even if an Amish family is dysfunctional you at least have a better shot of having someone in your family circle you can “latch onto” and look up to.

    21. ann

      I’m one of more than 60 grandchildren on my mom’s side of the family (I don’t think anyone’s counted recently, I sure haven’t, so I’m not sure just how many of us there are). My grandfather has always amazed me in that he actually does know us all by name. And, while I doubt that we have the typical grandchild-grandparent relationship that the ‘English’ think of, he is very affectionate with us and I think we’ve all been very aware of his keen interest in each of us. Grandma died several years ago with dementia. When she still had her memory, she, too, was very in tune with all of us. When you’ve got that many grandchildren, though, you don’t buy any of them regular presents- that’s pretty much impossible…or at least it’s never been a custom in my family. My dad’s mom used to make us gifts for Christmas each year but is no longer able for that…and she ‘only’ has about 40 g’kids so it was not quite so overwhelming.
      Grandparents are very important on both sides of the family and all of us are very aware of our surviving grandparents. Especially on Mom’s side of the family, there is near constant ‘hovering’ (if you want to call it that) around Grandpa. And, grandpa’s grandchildren were very much involved in the care of one of his sisters who never married or had children of her own.
      Likely the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren is different in large families but I’d say it’s just as vital and alive as in other families.
      Very interesting topic! I rather enjoyed pondering it!
      I like very much Anisa’s comment- that seems like an accurate take.

    22. Melissa H

      Big families

      My dad was one of 5, with his oldest brother nearly 20 years older than him. As a result of the wide age span,my sister and I are the last 2 of 20 grandchildren, with my oldest cousin nearly 20 years older than me. Grandma made sure to make us feel loved and special, and did fun things with us; but hearing the stories from my older cousins, I just couldn’t fathom how they could be telling me about the same lady. At Grandma’s funeral, a cousin said, “By the time you and Erika (my sister) came along, Gandma was tired from doing so much with us.” I can’t imagine how much different the memories of an older grandchild would be than a younger one within such large Amish families!

      1. You made me think about how “grandma” can mean many different things. I think we all have a picture in our heads of what a grandma is. In truth a grandma can be in the prime of life, or elderly and at the end of it.

    23. Dan

      Big families are better for kids

      I grew up in a family of five in the 1980’s. It wasn’t until I went to public high school that I even thought my family was large. Catholic grade school this was no big deal.

      Only children were obviously envious of us, we could play wiffle ball in our yard and field an entire team because there were four of us boys. Since I was the youngest, I spent as much time with my mother as an only child would, because the older ones were at school when I saw her. Still follow them on facebook and it’s not very hard to keep track of them. I can’t imagine having only one sibling like my children, hope my wife agrees to have more (pray for us).

    24. Linda Northern Illinois

      Mary and Linda:
      Your story of your Grandfather providing candy to you reminds me of a memory of my Grandfather. Following church on Sunday, my Dutch Grandfather would always offer a white mint or a pink peppermint to his liking. I never cared for that particular candy (I’m a chocolate fan) however, I would never say No Thanks to Grandpa.

      I also noticed at the end of the article there is an ad posted for life insurance. Perhaps if Mr. Stoltzfus had life insurance many of the relatives would remember him. Which brings the question Do the Amish have or carry a life insurance policy? Or do they take care of there own when it comes to a sudden death and the widow and children have a farm to take care of and own.

      1. Amish Girl-Rebecca

        Linda Northern Illinois
        No,We have no life insurance and yes we take care of our own.

    25. Dody

      I have 6.

      I had 6 by age 30. My doctor said I should have no more, so we have refrained. By 35 one is moved out and the youngest is starting kindergarten. They are not close at all anymore. The eldest and youngest were as tight as thieves, but life called my eldest to further away and now she is gone from him. He is angry at her for leaving and cries to me about it. He has been needier than ever, but extra cuddles in the morning before everyone is awake and before he goes to bed has made up for her absences. They were 14 years apart.

      My eldest son is 9 and he has filled his little brother’s days with trucks, superman, and races. My youngest daughter is 11 and disabled, but she tries to pick up more now that her eldest sister is gone. She was hereto spoiled and doted on the most because of her disabilities. She does dishes hanging off of a chair since standing is a problem for her. She has really blossomed into an independent young lady in her sisters absence. My second youngest daughter 14, now has taken over all the laundry. My second eldest daughter is the eldest in the home and essentially a manager in the home when I am away. She is responsible for cleaning the major living areas and hanging the laundry out on the line.

      They all homeschool, play together, and help with the farm chores. Some do more than others, but it all gets done. They do squabble, but they love each other. Recently I tried to separate the all into their own beds as I was raised. Previously we just didn’t have the money or room. All refused to sleep alone. They felt safe with at least one sibling in the bed with them. So the two boys have one bed, and the three girls one large bed. I suspect as they get older this will change, but the littlest were the most vocal against the changes.

      We share a lot of things. People always remark how few toys the children have. They expect a room full of toys and find they have may be 2 a piece. They think it is poverty, but the truth is they don’t need so many. My son will play with a superman doll, string, and a log. Literally. With his brother, that is all he needs to be happy. More toys only cause more fights I have found. We keep it to a min. and they are happy.

    26. Amish Girl-Rebecca

      Hey everyone ,
      Let me share a good memory of mine .At a Christmas gathering my Grampa who is almost blind recognized me by my voice and the size of my hand from the handshake.This was in the middle of 50 some grandchildren,plus in-laws, great grands,etc.
      My paternal Grampa had a disabling stroke almost 20 years ago.We(his children & grandchildren) cared for him many years and we have many good memories.
      My paternal Grandma died when I was small,so regrettably I have very few memories of her.But my step-gramma is very special to me .
      It’s great to be part of a large family .

    27. Barb Zimmerman

      Family Memories

      My grandparents had 6 kids, the last one when my grandmother was 40. By the time they moved off the farm, there was an average of 4 children per offspring. By the 50th anniversary there were more than 50 of us, probably half again that much now. It doesn’t take many generations to start a community, and we were a community. I remember the weekly Sunday dinners filled two rooms, and we always had enough people for softball after.

      My grandparents were very good about giving us each special attention, but being the oldest granddaughter close by brought many special privileges and responsibilities. One of my greatest memories was my grandpa’s constant claim that “nothing makes me happier than seeing my grandchildren’s feet under my table.”

      While I know all my first cousins, I only know a few of my second cousins and beyond today. No one shows up for family reunions now.

    28. Carrie

      Amish Genealogies

      I know this is bringing back an old post but My curiosity got to me. I recently did a DNA test and found an Amish name in my matches. With a little Research, I found the connection. I also got hold of an Amish Genealogy Book last dated 1998 with the same Surname. It was nicely indexed but I could not find the names listed (from the same County). I know My relatives left the Amish/Mennonite community. I noticed that all the names indexed had a NUMBER after their name but IN the book there were some names without Numbers. Do they NOT number those that have left their community? COULD they have been in the Book but NOT indexed because they left the Church?

      1. Marcus Yoder

        Amish Genealogies

        If a child is still at home they would not have a number. Once they are married and start a new family then they would be assigned a number, so you can follow them with there number. There are different way’s that genealogy books are done, so sometimes some are harder to follow than other’s. I have my genealogy on 23 and me. Sometimes people are looking for there parent, since they have been adopted. Sometimes they are quite surprised when i tell tell them if they are related to me they have Amish ancestors
        Marcus Yoder