Parenting Lessons from the Amish
by Serena B. Miller
In our rural area of southern Ohio, it is a commonly held belief that there are no good jobs around. We have been in a recession since the steel mills and shoe factories closed many years ago. Farmers complain it is no longer possible to make a living off the land. A majority of our children qualify for free school lunches.
So when the Amish began moving in about ten years ago, I wondered how they would support themselves. Land was cheap here and the Amish revere farm land, but how could anyone expect to support large families with farming alone?
Within a few months, small hand-lettered signs began cropping up on back country roads saying things like, “Will Upholster Anything” “Shoe Repair” “Baked Goods” “Feed Supply” “Bulk Foods” “Cabinetry” “Hand-woven Baskets.” After one growing season, Amish roadside produce stands cropped up. No matter how far out in the country, people beat a path to their door. The quality of work was excellent, the cost was fair, and we were enchanted when we glimpsed adorable Amish children dressed in old-fashioned clothing.
It was fascinating to watch the Amish create flourishing businesses where businesses had never existed before, and it was inspiring to see them turn abandoned farms into agricultural showpieces using only hand tools and horse-drawn farm equipment.
As a writer, I was intrigued by the culture, and I wanted to know more about them. Eventually that curiosity resulted in four novels set in Holmes County, Ohio, which is at the heart of the largest Amish settlement in the world. The Amish welcomed me into their homes, asking only that I write about them as accurately as possible.
As I got to know these people, the thing that most impressed me was how content their children were. They were obedient, polite, and respectful, and they also had a great attitude about helping with chores. I overheard an Amish father worrying aloud about a teenage son who was “working too hard.” These were words I had never heard from an Englisch (non-Amish) father. Quite the opposite.
Eventually, I began research for the book entitled “MORE THAN HAPPY: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting.” I wanted to know why their children seemed so contented. Why, with few toys and no electricity, were these children so…..happy? But when I began interviewing Amish parents about it I was met with puzzlement. “Happiness” in their children was not a goal. Instead these parents spoke of teaching their children to be considerate of others, to be honest and competent, to be respectful, and how to be a hard worker.
There are many facets to Amish parenting I discovered, but one of the most prevalent is their culture’s focus on teaching their children to work. They very intentionally teach each child to be competent in many skills, usually at a much younger age than most of us would expect from our children.
The reason is that this remarkable work ethic is absolutely necessary to their survival as a culture. The Amish pay taxes, but they do not pay into or accept Social Security. They do not accept welfare. They do not accept Medicaid or Medicare. Amish elderly do not go into nursing homes. They do not have health insurance. If a family cannot pay for all their medical help, an Amish bishop will negotiate a reduced fee with the hospital and the church will pay it. It is rare for an Amish person to be unemployed or even to retire. I have never heard of a homeless Amish person.
This high employment rate is especially impressive given the fact that the Amish only educate their children up to the eighth grade. After that, it is common for them to start working for Amish adults who teach them skills they want to master.
It is not difficult for an Amish teenager to find jobs. I spoke with a Bed & Breakfast owner in Holmes County who regularly employs Amish teenagers to help in her establishment. She said that it was hard for non-Amish teens in the area to find employment because local people preferred to hire Amish kids. “They show up on time, have a great attitude, are honest, they don’t steal, they don’t have piercings and tattoos, and most importantly they actually know how to work!” she said. “What employer wouldn’t want that?”
Because of this ingrained industriousness, many Amish young people are self-supporting long before Englisch youth begin filling out college applications.
How do Amish parents accomplish instilling this remarkable work ethic in their children? Here are some things I’ve observed:
I watched an Old Order Amish mother’s three young daughters cook dinner while their mother and I visited. One of the daughters was an accomplished bread maker and turned out several fresh loaves. I complimented the mother on her daughters’ skill. She laughed and said that it had not come about by accident.
“When the children were small, it would have been much easier and quicker to have done the cooking by myself without them in the way. It took a lot of time and patience to teach them, but I’m so glad I did.”
I asked about the division of labor between genders. Were boys ever taught to cook?
“My husband is an excellent cook.” She seemed surprised at the question. “He feeds our family well when I’m ill or gone. His mother made sure all of her sons knew how to cook before they left home.”
The next morning I saw her eleven-year-old daughter hang out a week’s worth of laundry after firing up the gasoline motor that fueled their wringer-washer. I couldn’t help but contrast her competency with an Englisch family I knew. I was helping out while the mother was ill. She had three teenagers who were excellent students and actively involved in sports and church activities, but when I asked them to toss a load of laundry in the washer, they looked scared. None of them had ever turned the washer on before and did not know how. Their mother did it all. She told me later that it was just easier for her to do it than to argue with her kids.
In the Amish culture it is tradition for a child to start learning how to work as soon as they turn two-years-old. A friend recounted bringing some Amish neighbors home from a grocery shopping trip and seeing the mother hand her two-year-old a small sack of groceries to carry into the house. My friend started to relieve the toddler of his small burden and carry it in herself, but the Amish mother gently chided her for doing so, pointing out that he needed to learn how to help.
Over and over as I’ve spent time with Amish families, I’`ve noticed that their children are expected to learn how to do things much younger than most Englisch parents would think possible. I’ve also noticed that some of the toys the children are given have a work-related theme. For instance, child-sized gardening tools, tiny clothespins to hang up doll clothes, small brooms, rolling pins sized for small hands are some common toys. The children love using them to help mom or dad.
Working together as a unit
The Amish are a sociable people who love to be together. They often engage in what they call “work frolics.” This involves things like women getting together to clean a home, or put up fresh produce, or simply to create a quilt. The men often work as a unit to harvest their crops or clean out a relative’s barn for a wedding. In the Amish mindset, working together is considered more enjoyable than working alone. Thus the word “frolic.” The children are always taken along and get to observe adults having fun while working.
It is therefore rare for children to be expected to do their chores alone. Even individual chores tend to be done with everyone else. Most Amish families have all children engaged in some sort of morning chore before the family enjoys breakfast. I’ve noticed that the children tend to get caught up in the cheerful bustle of the family’s morning chores. It seems that since the adults treat work as a “frolic” instead of complaining about it being drudgery, the children tend to grow up feeling the same way.
Work is not punishment
This is key. An Amish child is definitely encouraged to work, but I have never seen work used as a punishment in an Amish household. This is interesting because I’ve heard some non-Amish say that the reason they hate housework is because their mothers used it as a form of punishment. Instead, the Amish view work as a way to make a child feel included.
“Children need to feel like they are a necessary and helpful part of the family,” one Amish mother told me. “Including them in our chores is one of the ways we do it. How can a child ever feel like they are important to the family if they are never asked to help?”
Children’s Spending Money
Because the Amish have to learn to be good business people in order to survive, parents will often create ways for their children to run small businesses instead of giving them allowances. One father helped a son with a backyard egg business, and neighbors were happy to purchase organic eggs from the boy. Families who make part of their living with produce stands will usually allow a child to keep the money they make from their own small vegetable plot. One child’s parents helped him plant a blackberry patch. When the plants matured, he had a summer business of picking blackberries and selling them to a local grocery store. One family that supports itself making and selling handmade baskets allows their children to make a few baskets to sell for themselves. Girls make and sell handmade greeting cards, babysit, clean houses, make quilt hangings, etc. If one small business doesn’t turn out, they will try another.
Balancing Work vs. Fun
Some Amish parents told me that they considered having fun together an important part of teaching children to work. Usually this means they will do something together as a reward after the work is finished. A father might go fishing with a child after an afternoon of cutting grass. A mother might indulge in a craft project with a daughter after doing the morning baking. One father said that he felt like this was an important way to teach his children how to have balance in their lives. They worked hard, but they also got to play hard after the work was done.
No Empty Praise
One time I was making homemade egg noodles in an Amish friend’s kitchen and her five-year-old daughter was helping me. The little girl’s skill was astonishing. She seemed to know as much about wielding a rolling pin and measuring utensils as me. I was so impressed that I found myself falling into the habit of praising her for every little thing. “Oh, what a good cook you are, sweetie!” I gushed. “I bet your mom is really proud of her little helper.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was making a fool of myself. Her older teenage sisters took their little sister’s competence for granted and treated her like an equal as we all made dinner together. They did not use diminutives or layer on praise. She was treated with the same respect as they gave each other. The little girl didn’t seem to be enjoying my praise at all. Her body language showed she was annoyed—there was a large family to feed and work to be done, so why was I standing there talking to her like she was a baby?
It occurred to me that I had never heard any of my Amish friends slathering praise on their children. Nor did they criticize or belittle. When the mother came in from milking, I saw her reward the child with nothing more than a smile and a nod of approval. The child beamed.
Children are smart enough to see through empty praise and know it for the manipulation it often is. The actual competency that Amish parents instill in their children through careful teaching tends to give their children much more self-esteem than children given a solid diet of empty praise.
This strong work ethic has some unexpected benefits. In rural, bucolic Holmes County, Ohio, in spite of having only eighth grade educations, there are many Amish millionaires. Some run successful international businesses. As one Amish businessman told me, “Just because we only go to school for only eight years does not mean we ever stop learning.”
Most of us do not want to give up electricity, drive horse and buggies, or stop our children’s’ education at eighth grade, but I believe we can learn some important lessons from the Amish. One of the most important is giving our children the gift of learning how to work.
Serena B. Miller is the author of the Amish novels An Uncommon Grace, Hidden Mercies, and Fearless Hope. She has spent many years partnering with her husband in full‑time ministry and presently lives on a farm in southern Ohio. Her new non-fiction book, More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting will be out February 3rd. For more information about her, please visit http://serenabmiller.com/.