Sixteen is the traditional age when Amish youth begin Rumspringa, a time of 'running around'. During this period they spend more time hanging out with their peers on weekends and often begin dating. A young man may take a girl home in his buggy after Sunday evening singing or a group picnic. Rumspringa ends at marriage, which typically happens around twenty years of age.
Larger Amish communities may have a dozen or more youth groups. Smaller communities, on the other hand, may have just one youth gathering. Teens who begin Rumspringa at the same time often become friends for life and sometimes are called a 'buddy bunch'.
Rumspringa is a moment of freedom when youth are suspended between two authorities: the control of their parents and the supervision of the church. Because they have not been baptized, they technically do not have to obey the regulations of the church.
Many youth engage in traditional Amish behavior during Rumspringa such as playing volleyball, swimming, ice-skating, hiking, fishing, hunting, attending large outdoor picnics and, sometimes, participating in barn parties. The most common gatherings are 'singings' when several dozen youth gather in a home and sing for several hours followed by talking and eating.
Other young people join rowdy groups that experiment with worldly things - going to movies, wearing non-Amish clothes, buying a television or a DVD player. Youth in these 'faster' more rebellious groups sometimes drive cars and attend all-night parties that feature Amish bands with electric guitars, dancing, beer and, occasionally, drugs. Parents worry about which group their child will join because the choice will influence their teen's behavior.
Several myths about Rumspringa have distorted its reality. First, Amish-raised youth are not officially Amish until they have been baptized and join the church. This typically occurs between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. From an Amish view, Rumspringa-age youth do not have to follow church rules because they are not officially church members.
Another myth suggests that parents encourage or even urge their children to explore the outside world. However, the church did not create Rumspringa as a “time out” when youth can get a taste of modern culture. Rumspringa is simply an old tradition that gives youth more time with their peers on weekends as they begin dating and preparing for adulthood.
Third, some portrayals of Rumspringa show Amish youth abandoning their rural homes for wild lives in the city. This is just a myth! The vast majority of Amish teens spend their Rumspringa years living at home. The only difference is that on weekends, after their sixteenth birthdays, they hang out with their Amish friends and engage in new activities.
Another misconception is that youth who do not join the church will be shunned for the rest of their lives. In fact, those who reject baptism may interact with family and community because they have not broken any religious vows. Only baptized members who later recant will face the shame of shunning. The church does not punish those who leave the faith before baptism.
Finally, the Rumspringa experience varies greatly among the 425 different Amish communities. The length of time can stretch anywhere from one to eight years, depending on the local Amish community. The involvement of parents and the amount of deviance and interaction with the outside world does not follow one cultural blueprint. There are many different ways of doing Rumspringa, ranging from very traditional to quite rowdy.
Regardless of the style of Rumspringa, about 90% of youth eventually sign up for baptism and church membership and become productive and faithful Amish adults.
For more information, take a look at Growing Up Amish: The Teenage Years, by Richard Stevick.