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Growing Up Amish

Memories of an Amish Childhood

Published: September 3, 2013 12:00 AM
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This story originally appeared in the September 2003 edition of Amish Heartland. Names were changed to protect the privacy of the Amish people featured.

You see them often - holding dad's hand at the flea market, wide-eyed, or carefully clinging to mom's skirt in the grocery store, or even bouncing down the road in their very own pony cart.

Amish children go just about everywhere their parents do, and their little hat-covered and bonneted heads are a familiar and charming site in Amish Country. In general, Amish youngsters behave extremely well in public, but what are they like at home?

Whether she is helping weed her family's large garden or enjoying a game of tag with her brothers, Rebecca Troyer never lacked for something to do. Now a wife and mother herself, she recently sat down to reminisce about her childhood on an Amish farm in Kidron.

As she talked, she kept a close eye on her tow-headed little boys - Samuel, 3 and Jacob, 1 - as they played in her sunny kitchen. Occasionally she murmured softly to them in Pennsylvania Dutch. Since most Amish children do not formally learn English until they go to school, Rebecca surmised her boys could only understand part of our conversation. (The amount of English learned in early childhood depends upon the amount of interaction with non-Amish people, since Dutch is the primary language in Amish homes.)

While she and her siblings don't have "assigned" chores, the Troyer children began learning how to run a home and farm at a young age.

Generally, Rebecca said, Amish girls learn to do house work - dishes, cleaning, cooking and laundry - while boys help with outdoor chores - caring for animals, mowing the lawn and farming. However, this depends upon individual families and the number of children.

"I know a family with six children - all boys," she said. "And the boys help with the inside and outside work because there are no girls." Likewise, if a family had only daughters, the girls would do traditionally "boys" work, she said.

One of the first chores she learned as a little girl was wiping (drying) the dishes, Rebecca said. After this was mastered, she began washing them too. She also remembers baking cookies at a young age.

"But we didn't do much cooking until we were a little older, " she said, "because with something like cookies, we used a recipe," whereas dishes were made mostly from her mother's memory.

By the time she was 12, Rebecca was doing the family's laundry, using a wringer-type washing machine and hanging the clothes out to dry.

As for Rebecca's three brothers, they were kept busy in the barn, taking care of the livestock. Most Amish families keep several animals even if they don't farm. Of course, buggy horses are necessary, and often the family will have chickens, goats, a cow or two, even pigs. Rebecca's three brothers were also in charge of keeping the yard neatly mowed, a task they began around 11 or 12.

Even though the chores - especially the gardening - were not Rebecca's favorite activities. "The work was good for us," she said wisely.

While Rebecca and her family belong to the Old Order Amish church, the stricter groups introduce children to work earlier in life, she said. Swartzentruber Amish children become accustomed to horses almost from birth, and little boys as young as ten can often be seen driving teams of the huge, but gentle, draft horses to auction or the feed mill.

But life wasn't only chores, Rebecca said with a smile. She has many fond memories of playing a favorite game - Gray Wolf - with friends and cousins at the nearby Kidron Auction barn. A little like Hide-and-Seek, the game involved a "wolf" chasing everyone else around and tagging them until all had become "wolves." The empty barn stalls made perfect hiding places.

"But we used to go home so dirty," Rebecca laughed. "The walls were whitewashed, and it would get all over us. I'm sure we didn't smell too nice either."

Her parents weren't angry though.

"They were happy because we were so happy," she said.

Many Amish girls enjoy playing with dolls and playing "church" or "house."

"But since my sister is six years younger than me, I played more with the boys when I was little," said Rebecca. "We played outside a lot." She remembered riding their ponies and horses, or engaging in games of tag, Kick the Can and softball. And there were almost always kittens or puppies around to cuddle.

During the winter months, the Troyer children enjoyed indoor games of Uno, Monopoly and Clue.

"We always tried to get mom to play, but she would say she wanted to read," Rebecca said. "I never understood why someone would rather read than play, but now I'm like that," she laughed, casting a glance at Samuel and Jacob, who were amusing themselves with some plastic toys.

Being a mother "really keeps you humble," Rebecca concluded. "You understand your parents a lot more." She's grateful for her childhood memories and the values her parents instilled in her from the start - a strong faith, good work ethic and the importance of "doing what's right.

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