About the Author
Prior to writing novels, Serena Miller wrote for many periodicals, including Woman’s World, Guideposts, Billy Graham’s Decision Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Focus on the Family, Christian Woman, and The Detroit Free Press Magazine. She has spent many years partnering with her husband in full-time ministry and lives on a farm in southern Ohio near a thriving Amish community.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
More than Happy Family
“Our babies are constantly in the middle of everything.”
As I set out to try to understand what makes Amish children, in the words of my friend Joyanne, “the happiest kids on earth,” the natural place to start seemed to be to gather a group of Amish women and ask them questions about their parenting techniques. I decided to host a luncheon and invite all the Old Order Amish women I’d gotten to know from my research trips to the area. Their ages spread across four generations. The youngest was a new mother in her early twenties with a three-week-old baby in her arms. The oldest was a great-grandmother who had more than seventy grandchildren living in the immediate area. They were aware that they were going to be interrogated about Amish parenting at this luncheon and they were good-humored about it.
I’d read countless parenting books as I had raised my children, and each seemed to promise some miracle technique or philosophy that would lead to happier, healthier children. My daughter-in-law was now pregnant with her first child, and we’d discussed many of the issues in the newest parenting books she was reading. She’d brought up topics like feeding on demand versus scheduling, breast or bottle, buying baby food versus making your own, vaccinating or not, Ferberizing versus the family bed—all hot-button topics in the mainstream parenting advice market.
I was prepared with a list of questions about topics that seem to incite angst and emotional reactions in the Englisch mothers I knew. I was sure that, with the results I’d seen, these women must have strong opinions and an overarching philosophy that guided their parenting decisions.
“I want to find out why Amish children are so content,” I said as we sat down to a picnic-type meal of chicken, baked beans, and potato salad. I glanced at my list of questions. “Let’s start with infants. Do you feed on demand, or do you stick to a rigid schedule?”
This was a question my daughter-in-law had asked me especially to find out. As a soon-to-be new mother, she was trying so hard to figure out how to do everything right. Whether or not to breast-feed on demand, or put a baby on a schedule, and if so, when to put a baby on a feeding schedule were big topics of conversation with her and many of the other new mothers at our church.
“I think our babies are usually fed on demand,” the young Amish mother said tentatively, though she looked a bit confused.
“Mine are, but I’m having a hard time nursing Jonas right now. It’s like something bothers him,” said another.
“Mine were all fed on demand,” Barbara, a mother of eight, volunteered. “But I noticed that they demanded it a lot more when I had not eaten well. What a mother eats has a real effect on her nursing baby. If she doesn’t eat nourishing food, the baby doesn’t get the nutrition it needs and naturally nurses more. I’ve noticed it’s the same way with cows and their calves. If a cow has poor nutrition, the calf can’t seem to nurse enough. My babies were always more easily satisfied when I paid attention to getting the right foods in me.”
I scribbled notes. I knew that this particular woman once helped her husband run a dairy farm while nursing eight babies. What she said about babies and calves was probably well worth listening to. I suspected a number of the Englisch moms I knew would have a hard time being compared to a dairy cow, but it seemed to be a natural reference for the Amish mothers. Several nodded in agreement.
“What about baby food? Do you buy commercial or make your own?” I asked.
The mothers looked at one another as if they were not sure they understood the question.
A young mother finally answered. “A lot of women buy some baby food in jars, but also mash some food at the table. I did that for my daughter, Miriam, but intend to make my own for Jonas and freeze it in ice cube trays.”
“What about sleep?” I asked. “Do Amish babies sleep in a separate room or with the mother and father?”
“Right now we have Miriam’s and Jonas’s beds in our room,” the woman continued. “It makes it easier for me to get stuff for them. And it makes it easy to nurse Jonas at night. I also have a rocker in our room.”
“Is that usual in Amish families?” I asked. “Children sleeping in the same room with the parents?”
Again there was a pause, as if they were trying to understand what I was getting at.
“I don’t know what other families do,” one said tentatively. “But I remember sleeping in my parents’ bed sometimes if there was a thunderstorm. It would have been so scary if they had sent me back to my room, but they were always understanding about it. I remember thinking I would be safe from anything if I could just be with them.”
Her mother smiled. “You were never a bother. We didn’t want you to be frightened.”
This reminded me of another question my daughter-in-law wanted me to ask.
“How do any of you feel about allowing a child to cry it out?”
A few of the women looked at each other, and I saw one of them give a little shrug.
“What do you mean?” The grandmother, who was sitting beside me turned to look directly at me, and I saw a worried expression on her face. “Cry it out?”
“I’m talking about putting a child to bed in a separate room and letting them cry themselves to sleep.”
“Never!” The great-grandmother shook her head emphatically, then hugged herself and gave a little shiver. “I cannot bear to even think of it.”
“There are some experts who really advocate this method of training a child to go to sleep on their own,” I explained.
“We’re not real comfortable with that,” Barbara said uneasily. There was a pause, and then someone elaborated. “We rarely put our babies in a separate room even for their naps. We prefer for them to be with us or with older brothers and sisters.”
I decided to leave that subject. “What about vaccinating?”
Yet again, they looked at each other as though trying to puzzle out what I was asking.
“Serena, we thought you wanted to know what makes Amish children so content,” one of them finally said.
“I do. That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” I said.
There was another pause, and then Barbara nodded toward the youngest mother in our group, who was holding her new baby over her shoulder. “Do you see that?”
“Our children are used to being around lots of family from long before they are born. A young mother is seldom left on her own. She always has help. We spend so much time with our families that I think it helps give our children a feeling of security. Babies are nearly always being held by someone, and they are constantly in the middle of everything.”
Slowly, it began to dawn on me what she was getting at. Amish families are large, and extended families often live in close proximity. Family members are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. There would be no place to be alone, even if you wanted to be. From the time they are infants, children live in a society where they are surrounded by people who care about them, a culture that is intentionally built around the importance of family and community.
An infant doesn’t understand the implications of that, but he does feel the security of having all his needs met, of knowing that there are always people around who care. What Barbara was saying is that one of the reasons Amish children are so content is because they are born into a community structured to make the family central, and this allows children to feel secure.
As I probed further into Amish parenting, I quickly realized that Amish parenting is not a “method”; it is the culmination of many beliefs deeply held by the entire community. One of the most important of those beliefs is that the family will be at the center of just about everything Amish people do. Even more than I had originally thought. Every decision, every choice, is made with the good of the family in mind, and the entire Amish culture is built around preserving and protecting the family unit. After my realization at the luncheon, it seemed an appropriate place to start digging a bit more deeply into the wisdom of Amish parenting.
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