Today we have Part 1 of an interview with Messiah College professor emeritus of psychology Richard Stevick on his Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years.

Win 1 of 3 copies of Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years

Ask Rich a question in the comments below, and you’ll automatically get a chance to win one of three copies of Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years.

Growing Up Amish Rumspringa Years StevickThis is the second edition of Growing Up Amish (first published in 2007 and originally subtitled “The Teenage Years”–Rich explains the change below).

This updated edition covers new information including the effects of social media, smartphones, and the potential changes to Amish society due to these technologies. Other areas include “work and leisure, rites of passage, the rise of supervised youth groups, courtship rituals, weddings, and the remarkable Amish retention rate.” 

You’ll be able to enter the giveaway contest the usual way as well–by leaving a comment on Part 2 of this interview. But if you have a question for Rich about Amish youth or other Amish issues, here’s your chance to possibly get an answer–and get an extra chance to win the book.

We’ll feature some of your questions in Part 2 of the interview next week.

 Rich Stevick on Growing Up Amish: The Rumspringa Years (Part 1)

Give us some background on you and the Amish: How, when, where, why did you get into this field?

Rich Stevick: A dozen years into my teaching career at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, I was asked by a colleague who was teaching a course on Amish life if I would pick up the class because he was leaving Messiah. When I told him that I didn’t know anything about the Amish, he suggested that since it was only a three week May-June term class that I learn along with the students. Since that was already my modus operandi, since I had a deep interest in different cultures, and since the class consisted of home stays with Amish families, I said “Why not give it a try.” And that was the start of a fascinating journey that has extended to almost a quarter of a century.

Are you still involved in teaching, researching, and writing?

This week, I just finished teaching our Amish Cross-cultural Studies class for the umpteenth time. My colleague, John Bechtold, and I, started this year’s class on May 22 at Messiah, placed students for six days with Lancaster County Amish families, returned to class for debriefing and more class work, then went to Ohio where our students lived with Holmes County families—to find out, to their surprise, that not all Amish do things just like the Lancaster Amish. Of course, among other things, that’s what we wanted them to learn.

That class is a fascinating subject in itself. Perhaps we can do a follow up soon on Amish America to explore more about what challenges the students face, how you obtain host families, and what they—and you—have taken away from such a class and experience over the years. But for now I want to ask you how you happened into your studies, research, and writing about Amish youth and their parents.

Every since my first year at Messiah, I taught classes on youth and adolescence—a class called Adolescent Development. It was one of my favorite classes to teach. When I started teaching the Amish class in 2001, I never thought about researching and writing about Amish adolescence. I soon found, however, that few of the things that I wanted to know about Amish teens and parenting were in the major books of that time, e.g., Amish Society by John Hostetler. My interests and curiosity led me deep into the subject, and eventually I realized that I needed to share what I was learning with other scholars of the Amish, with the public at large, and with interested Amish, especially my research on the Internet for this book.

Rich Stevick and Friends

Rich Stevick and friends

How difficult was it for you to learn about the youth and about Amish parenting? I thought that this information tended to be privileged and off-limits to outsiders.

You are right. My feeling is that Amish in general have been protective of that information, perhaps because it has been an area in which parents and ministers have felt vulnerable. They like to see things “decent and under control,” and, of course, human behavior does not always match that ideal, especially with the emerging generation.

I think I was able to gain the confidence of Amish adults and youth over time because it was not a hit, run, and publish approach. Instead, I got to know many of them over the years of teaching my class and developing relationships. Also, I was fortunate to have some highly respected Amish leaders as friends, and this gave me instant credibility with new Amish contacts. (I quickly learned that dropping the right names in Amish circles resulted in an expanding circle of helpers.) And I was extremely careful in keeping sources confidential and not using Amish names in my writings (the research process I took in studying Amish youth, smart phones, and the Internet for this book took a somewhat different direction, but I’ll save that for later.)

Your first book, Growing Up Amish: The Teenage Years, came out just seven years ago. Why a revision so soon, and why did the title change from “Teenage” to “Rumspringa Years”?

The title change first: Most Amish define rumspringa as that time between age 16 and marriage when youth are free to expand their peer contacts, often beyond the family and neighborhood ties, to socialize with others and eventually seek and find a mate. The media have often distorted this to mean a walk on the wild side or perpetual Spring Break for all Amish youth. My book deals with the Amish youthful experience till the end of rumspringa, a period that culminates in marriage for most youth. Hence the title change.

Amish Carriage Buck Insignia

Photo by ShipshewanaIndiana

As far as change in the Amish youth culture in seven years, I have found significant changes in many communities. The most significant, by far, is the challenge of smartphones and the Internet. When I wrote my first book, I devoted exactly one sentence to cell phones and the youth. Now, great numbers of youth, especially in the large settlements, are on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and my hope is to live long enough to see how, and if, this Electronic Rumspringa, as I call it, will impact the future values and behaviors of the rumspringa-generation Amish.

What were some of the challenges you faced in learning about Amish youth on the Internet?

After my Johns Hopkins editor, Greg Nicholl, contacted me about a newspaper article he read on Amish youth hitching up to Facebook, I decided to study Amish youth and social media. My first challenge was to become familiar with American pop culture so that I knew the Internet rumspringa Amish youth were talking about or participating in. As a professor who retired in 2005, I had pretty much ignored social media and entertainment developments. I did know a bit about Facebook, but I needed the help of a young faculty member to get on and accept “friends.” Suddenly, in my research, I was faced with entertainment or communication options I knew very little about, e.g., Pandora, Hulu, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, iPods, iTunes, etc., etc.

In seeing their publicly posted photos, available on most Amish Youngie Facebook sites, I also learned about hand signals, duck faces, tankinis, board shorts, beer pong, and a multitude of texting acronyms. I was definitely not ROTFL (Rolling on the floor laughing). I learned also about their favorite movies, television programs, and music, most of which I had never heard about but was available through their smartphones, and all in the public domain.

How I was able to determine who had grown up Amish, who had left or was in the process of leaving the Amish, and who had Amish names but belonged to the conservative but not Old Order Amish Spring Garden or Beachy Amish church must wait for another conversation—or reading the book.

Which technology or aspect of life do you think is hardest for Amish youth to give up on joining the church?

My sense from my talking with Amish adults and youth is that the smartphone/ Internet will be the hardest thing to give up for many. They believe that one reason is that it is so addictive, and another reason is that it is so easy to hide. One of my committed Amish adult friends said that he had significant difficulty “putting it away” after he worried about the example he was setting for his children and others. Also, I see names of young Amish acquaintances on Facebook who have joined the church but are still active users. (I know of no Amish churches, with the possible exception of Ohio’s New New Order Amish, who would permit or condone Facebook use by members).

I can say with certainty that the control of computers, and especially smartphones and the Internet, are by far the greatest concern among ministers and parents today. The other thing that is hard for many young men to give up, albeit not technological, is league sports—softball, hockey, basketball, etc. But enough for today. Let’s continue this next week, Erik, with other questions from you and from Amish America readers.

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