The (Very Human) Amish Family

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

Get the Amish in your inbox

Join 15,000 email subscribers. No spam. 100% free

    Similar Posts

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


    1. Anita Martin

      Old Order? New Order?

      I enjoy reading the posts. Sometimes I wish the writer would mention if the family they speak of is Old Order, New Order, etc. My Old Order friends would never have a dog in the home, allow anyone to wear “English” clothes, and they don’t even know the word “Rumspringa”. They also cannot ride bikes or use rollerblades. There can be no variations in style of dress. Shoes must be the same with never a molded sole. After church and wedding the youngins sing and have candy- don’t have volleyball like a lot of Amish kids do.

      They all seems as happy as clams too and love socializing. I try to pick up Maytag Wringer washers for them. They have no idea how our washers work.

      They are like regular folks, as far as conversation and such, once you earn their trust, which takes time. Many are very funny!

      1. Jim knows best, but until he has a chance to answer I will just say that I believe some if not all the families referenced here are from the Old Order community in northern Indiana. There’s actually a lot of variety within “Old Order” and the group in northern Indiana (ie Elkhart/Lagrange counties) is generally pretty progressive (though it also has its more conservative parts).

    2. Katie Troyer

      Jim Cates knows the Amish. Thank you for sharing this article.

    3. Jim Cates

      Which Amish?


      Good question about “which Amish?” Here’s the lowdown.

      The story of the young man who wore English clothes comes from the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement – Old Order Amish. There, their youngie enter rumspringa and may obtain a driver’s license, drive vehicles, and wear English clothes (with varying levels of disapproval. I know some who leave home, change into English clothes, and change back before they return). The story of the dog, ironically enough, happened in a lower (more conservative) Swiss Amish home near Fort Wayne – still Old Order. The dog in question was a much-loved family pet. There were several dogs on the farm. None of the others were allowed in the house, but this particular dog had the run of the place. He was a total cutie (can you tell I’m a dog lover?).

      The youngie with the cell phone also occurred in Elkhart-LaGrange, but I have seen Amish youth in every settlement I’ve ever visited with cell phones with online access. This young man was forever in trouble for something though. I thoroughly enjoyed him, but he also worried me. Thought for sure he’d grow up, leave the Amish, and head for a world of hurt before he settled down. So much for my abilities to “read” people! He found a wonderful young woman about a year into his rumspringa, they dated for a while, joined church, and he is now happily married.

      So that’s the “stories behind the stories.” Or my “post within a response” if you will! Thanks for asking.

      1. Jonathan Edwards

        Which affiliations?

        When you say that “I have seen Amish youth in every settlement I’ve ever visited with cell phones with online access” which affiliations does this include? Swartzentruber, Andy Weaver, and Nebraskans of the Sam L. Yoder type? Or New New Order, South Gmay Holmes County, and Lancaster County? Or…?

        1. Jim Cates

          Which Affiliations?


          Your post somehow escaped me until today. Your question becomes ticklish, because I don’t want to “out” those settlements that I am aware are struggling with cell phone use by highlighting them, so I’ll respond this way. Consider my fame, and that should give you an indication of how widespread my sociological studies have been. What’s that, you say? I’m not famous at all? There’s one answer, telling you how limited my research is. If I were running for President, I might feel the need to “spin” a response, since the media would be gathered behind your question, waiting to report to the nation. Since I am (very thankfully) a bit player in this particular play, I will stand by the fact that it was an “off the cuff” remark, and reflects exactly what it says: my experience based on my visits.
          And as far as a more studied response to cell phone usage, the best resource I know at the moment would be Rich Stevick’s “Growing Up Amish,” 2nd edition. Otherwise, there may be articles floating about, but that would be about it.
          Having carefully maneuvered to gain the shoreline again, let me throw myself back out to sea with a final thought. Human nature being what it is, I suspect that every settlement, including the groups you mention, has someone hiding an illicit cell phone.
          Thanks Jonathan!

          1. Jonathan Edwards


            Thanks for the thoughtful response, and the original “off the cuff” statement.

            1. Naomi Wilson

              Jonathan, are you by chance related to the Edwards family that joined and left a Swartzentruber church back in the 1980’s? Just curious, and I will not be offended at all if you choose not to respond to my question.

              1. Jonathan Edwards

                Northampton, Massachusetts

                I was born on October 5, 1703. I was a Protestant pastor and theologian. I wrote ‘Freedom of the Will,’ a philosophical treatise on free will and predestination, preached ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,’ and oversaw some of the first revivals. I was dismissed from my pastorate for disapproving of the Half-Way Covenant….

                So, as you have guessed by now, this is only a ‘pen name.’ My real name is neither Jonathan nor Edwards! I remain cheerfully anonymous. So, no offense taken. 🙂

                1. Naomi Wilson

                  Got it. That was my second guess. Thanks for the reply.

              2. Amish Girl-Rebecca

                Naomi, Thanks for asking him. I was curious,too.

        2. Amish Girl-Rebecca

          Jonathan- As an insider, I know that most(and notice I say most, not all)Amish communities regardless of affiliation have to deal with cell phones creeping in. And many sincere Amish wish it weren’t so.For example ,on the way to school(with a taxi driver) around 7:00 one morning we passed a Swartzentruber open buggy and we saw the light from his cell phone before the dim lantern light.

      2. Amish Girl-Rebecca

        Yes, we are very HUMAN . And ,Anita – not to confuse you, but depending what community you’re referring to you will find old orders more progressive than New Order in other communities. The group you refer to seems to be like the Swartzentruber Amish (the most conservative).Old Order doesn’t necessarily mean ” most conservative”, BUT “the original group”.

    4. Donna J

      Love the stories and the pictures! Keep em’ coming!!!!

    5. Jim Cates

      Stories and Pictures. Ah yes, the pictures...

      Thanks Donna, but to make sure credit goes where it should, Erik finds those great photos to complement the posts. He also helps me by editing when I become convoluted or vague. So please know this is definitely a team effort when I post!

      1. And I’ll pass the credit for these photos to someone who keeps providing great photos (reader ShipshewanaIndiana). The photos above were all taken in Holmes County (except for the pooch). And for the record I do little editing on Jim’s reliably well-polished posts 🙂

    6. Alice Mary

      Jim, and Erik, I enjoyed this post and got a “warm and fuzzy” feeling from reading it and viewing the photos (yes, that pooch IS a cutie pie!) I also smiled at the photo of the “two peas in a pod”-I mean BUGGY. Even photo of the women & kids made me reminisce about shopping trips with Ma in the old neighborhood, hauling our purchases home for blocks and blocks in all kinds of weather (we didn’t have a car, and buses only ran on the main thoroughfares—we walked through the side streets).

      Yep, English or Amish, we’re all human (and dogs…and teenagers…will be, well, dogs & teenagers!)

      Alice Mary

      1. Amish Girl-Rebecca

        Mary Alice- I love your last line ! Absolutely True !