While Serena Miller was researching a novel set in the Ohio Amish country, near the center of the largest Amish community in the world, the owner of the B&B where she was staying made a comment that stuck with her because she’d been observing the very same thing:
“I am convinced that Amish children are the happiest children in the world.”
Over and over, Miller saw kids who seemed remarkably contented, cheerful, competent, and obedient. They played quietly without interrupting while their parents talked. They helped without complaint. They smiled, laughed, and goofed around, but never in ways that were annoying or rude.
As she spent more time in their homes and around their tables—eventually she’d write four novels set in the area—this mother and grandmother realized something startling: Making sure their kids were happy wasn’t even on the Amish parents’ radar.
“Happiness is seen as a by-product,” she says in her book More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting, written with Paul Stutzman, who was born Amish, was raised in a Mennonite church, and remained in the Amish community. They emphasize other traits, she adds, like security, consideration, and resourcefulness.
Help yourself to some of their happiness-raising practices (they welcome borrowing):
Amish kids are surrounded by people who know them, love them, and look out for them. “The Amish have the philosophy that it takes a family AND a village to raise a child.” Miller says. That involves lots of to-ing and fro-ing to one another’s homes.
And nobody avoids inviting people over because the new back deck isn’t finished or puts off reciprocating a dinner party because they haven’t had a chance to pre-test a Cooks Illustrated recipe yet. They don’t whirl around getting the house “ready” for company. Nobody apologizes for “the mess.”
The Amish don’t expect perfection—they’re just there for the company. And they bring all the kids. It’s from that constant noisy, busy buzz that kids gain a deep sense of security.
Uffgevva is a central Amish concept that pretty much means: You’re less important than others. Your needs and wants are important, but they’re not more important than those of your family and your community.
Instead of focusing on praise, self-esteem, trophies, and other expressions that underscore a child’s specialness, Amish kids are taught to focus outward. To be thoughtful and helpful toward others. To give someone else a turn first, include a younger child in play.
By seeing the adults and older kids around them act this way as they grow up, it doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise. They’re just glad when they can help someone else.
Amish kids are given chores starting in toddlerhood to “start feeling like a necessary, contributing part of the family,” Miller says. A friend gave her a list:
- Age 4: Gather eggs, pull weeds, wash main dishes, set table
- Age 5: Sweep kitchen floor, fetch mail, rock baby
- Age 6: Feed horses, carry wood for stove, mow lawn
And so on, up to baking cakes at 8 and doing laundry at 11.
And no, they don’t get an allowance for their work.
Wait, so how does this make them happy? While doing chores, kids are taught a lot of skills along the way, from how to crack eggs to how to build a birdhouse. That develops perseverance, attention to detail, confidence, and the satisfaction of doing their part.
Amish parents care more about HOW food is eaten than what or how much, Miller says. And that means as a group, whenever feasible.
“Unless we have at least one meal together as a family, the day doesn’t feel right,” one Amish mother told Miller.
It doesn’t occur to them to fret about the nutritional content (they just serve plain, wholesome foods) or cater to who-likes-what (everybody eats the same). Kids take more of what they like and less of what they don’t, but they try everything, because it’s the considerate thing to do.
What helps: Amish kids take part in growing and preparing the food, which seems to make them more interested in trying it. No spare half acre for watermelons at your house? Maybe a container of cherry tomatoes on the patio or a visit to a pick-your-own orchard will pique your child’s interest, Miller says.
One thing you don’t see in Amish homes are a lot of packages that came from Toys R Us. At Christmas, families often draw names for presents, rather than buying something for everyone—their families are too big!
Yet you don’t hear “I’m bored” or “There’s nothing to do!”
Amish kids play as hard as they work. But their toys tend to be basics: puzzles, dolls, board games, sports equipment, pets. Without an overload of plastic stuff, they’re forced to use their brains to concoct fun—lots of pretend games, writing letters, playing house, sports, and other kinds of self-directed play.
“Try to create some ‘white space’ in your child’s life instead of attempting to fill every minute,” Miller suggests. You might be surprised by how they fill it.
Happy is as happy does
So much of what makes Amish kids grow up secure and happy seems like the polar opposite of what most of us do, Miller says again and again in her book: Making them do chores and not paying them? Not praising your child for a job well done? Not buying 20 birthday gifts?
Counterintuitive but true: For Amish parents, Miller says, doing these things helps their kids grow into “people of value, sons and daughters with integrity and compassion.” And, not coincidentally, people of value tend to also be very happy people.