The Family Hub of Amish Life

The cultural heritage of Amish life has not only empowered commercial activity, but it has also bridled it. Amish entrepreneurs are constrained in many ways by the moral boundaries of Amish culture that govern, among other things, family life, sacred days, the use of technology, the size of enterprises, the type of products, and acceptable vocations. These cultural restraints that impede entrepreneurial activity often collide with the cultural resources that energize economic growth. Entrepreneurs may work hard to build quality products and expand their markets only to face the frown of the church for getting too big. Without easy access to e-mail and motor vehicles, owners may be hard-pressed to provide prompt service to non-Amish customers, suppliers, and dealers. The clashes between the resources and restraints of Amish culture often produce negotiated outcomes that appear odd to outsiders-telephones in a shed outside the place of business or copy machines powered by homemade electricity from batteries.

Family concerns have exerted many constraints on the development of Amish enterprise. From cradle to grave, Amish life revolves around the family. Most children are born at home, and the preschool years are spent, not in nursery schools, but with the family. Worship services as well as weddings and funerals take place in the context of the home. Recreation is also family-centered-volleyball, softball, table games, and parlor games are played within the circle of extended family. In short, all the major social activities have historically clustered around the family.

Family life is strengthened by the prominence of the extended family. The typical Amish person has seventy-five or more first cousins, many of whom live nearby. Rejecting retirement homes, Amish seniors live near children and grandchildren, often in an apartment or "grossdaadi house" attached to a main dwelling or in a small home close to a grown child. Families living near each other in a church district are often related. These overlapping social circles integrate faith, work, and family into a common ethnic fabric.

The family channels Amish values, beliefs, and practices across the generations as fathers and mothers pass on the imprint of Amish identity to their children. On farms, Amish children, unlike modern youth, have always worked alongside their parents, learning skills and absorbing attitudes. Despite the shift to microenterprises, farming is still esteemed, in part because it fosters family connections. A shop owner who has never farmed as an adult expressed a common conviction when describing his people: "We're family centered, and the farm is the best place to raise a family." In the words of an Amish grandfather, "Farming is the best family life because father and mother work together to raise the children." The glorification of farming hinges on its ability to hold the family together. "On the farm, we have the opportunity to work together as a family," one Amish publication explains. "The lines of 'your work' and 'my work' become blurred so that it is 'our work.'' Farming remains highly esteemed among the Amish, even though large numbers have abandoned it. "The farm is still enjoyed by our people, even if they're not on it," observed a metal worker.

The legacy of the farm-centered family has shaped the Amish entry into business. Vocational choices are ranked by how well they emulate farm life. Small cottage industries often replicate family arrangements on the farm, and thus the Amish have welcomed home-based firms. "There is always a need for community-oriented shops," one Amish writer states, "but once again, the setting should be such that the father can be at home with the family and there is work for everyone right at home." An Amish minister praised "home shops," but then asked, "What about the many fathers, sons, and daughters who work away from home? Being away from the protection of the Christian home is unfortunate. Working daily under the influence of an unbelieving immoral world is worse yet."

As they leave the farm, Amish persons typically work in one of three settings: at home, nearby, or away. Those who work as day laborers in a neighbor's shop or who have a store or manufacturing establishment within several miles of home fall into the "nearby" category. The least esteemed jobs involve "working away." In describing "away" work, the Amish betray their belief that work should remain near home. "Working away is when you stand at the end of your lane in the morning and wait for someone to come by and pick you up and take you to work-who-knows where," one Amish man explained. Working away often involves employment with a mobile construction crew or tending a market stand in an urban area. Often young men and women work away until they marry. Once a couple establishes their own household, the husband will try to find work near home. Some men, however, work away for many years, although the cultural constraints to work near home remain strong.

Article from The book Amish Enterprise Pages 93-94: From Plows to Profits, by Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt, the Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, second edition. Used by permission of the authors and the publisher. For more information contact the Hopkins Press