What the Amish Can Teach Us About Parenting

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You may think of horse-drawn buggies and handmade clothing when you hear the word “Amish” but when it comes to parenting, the Amish are one step ahead. That’s according to author Serena B. Miller’s new book, “More Than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting,” published February 3. Miller was inspired to write the book with co-author Paul Stutzman based on what she noticed when the Amish began establishing communities near her home in Southern Ohio — namely that their children were polite, well-behaved and happy—all the time. Their parents must be doing something right. Here are five child-rearing tips we can glean from the Amish.

Give kids tasks: “The Amish teach their children to be helpful at an early age,” Miller tells Yahoo Parenting, noting that small chores are assigned when a child is around two- years old. The chores help them feel like they are, as one Amish mother put it, “a necessary part of the family.” One example is simply hanging their own coats. Miller says one creative mother used positive reinforcement for this task by hiding a treat in a coat that a child had hung up. “The children knew that coats left lying about would get no treat,” says Miller.

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By age four, Amish children are often collecting eggs from the family chickens, setting the table, and pulling weeds from the garden. “A child’s contribution to the family is respected and valued,” notes Miller. “The focus isn’t as much about discipline as it is about training.” And having chores throughout the day, as well as lots of outdoor playtime, also burns off excess energy that might otherwise be channeled into bad behavior.

Serve wholesome food: Miller notes that she did not once hear an Amish child complain about the food served at mealtime. Amish children experience the work that goes into their food supply almost daily — from preparing the soil to planting and weeding and checking on the first carrots, the reddening tomatoes, or the watermelon plot in the summer. All that work has an effect on their appetites and food preferences.

While few of us parents work on the family farm and bring home just-picked ingredients for dinner each night, we can find ways to cultivate the reverence for food that Amish children seem to come by naturally. Learning to cook, simple meals, will improve your child’s nutrition as it chips away at fast, packaged options, and the kitchen is a great place for assigning small chores until they’re old enough to make meals for you. Teaching your child how to grow something edible — even just a fresh herb on the windowsill — can also help them develop a greater appreciation for food.

Limit media consumption: “The thousands of carefully crafted commercials we see each year have one purpose — to make us unhappy with our possessions, our lives, our bodies, our health, and our homes,” says Miller. “If we are discontented enough, advertisers hope we’ll purchase their product. The Amish don’t have a long list of manufactured needs and their children don’t whine for the latest toy because they seldom know it even exists.” Miller also notes that anorexia is almost unheard of in the Amish culture. “Their cultural focus is not on physical beauty, but on developing value as a human being.”

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This doesn’t mean breaking your TV — even some Amish have battery-operated DVD players in their homes. “These devices are kept for long winter days or sometimes during a child’s illness,” says Miller. “’Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘The Waltons’ are favorites because those shows contain many of the same principles Amish parents want their children to learn.” Mindful media consumption (knowing what your kids are watching and how they’re interpreting it) is something all parents can do.

Embrace “Uffgevva:” From an early age, Amish children learn the concept of Uffgevva. “Loosely translated, it means ‘your needs and wants are important, but not more important than the needs of others,’” explains Miller. “Every decision Amish parents make is carefully viewed through the filter of how a decision will affect the family as a whole, not just how it will affect an individual. Selfish behavior is not tolerated for long.”

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Parents might work with this concept by teaching children to become givers — and the best way to do that is to model by giving yourself. “Find a way for your child to help others,” suggests Miller. Whether that’s making soup for a sick friend and bringing it over together or helping to feed a neighbor’s cat while he or she is away, these actions help children recognize other people’s needs.

Pile on the family time: One Amish father mentioned to Miller that when one of his children begins to misbehave, he knows it’s a sign that the child needs more of his attention, which he provides until the behavior improves. “Their chosen lifestyle makes it easier for Amish parents to spend time together as a family,” Miller acknowledges. “Having no electricity means the family isn’t spread out all over the house in the evenings. Instead, they gather together in one room and spend time reading, sewing, working on crafts, putting together jigsaw puzzles, or playing games together.”

While that’s a tall order for many parents, Miller suggests trying a weekly “old-fashioned” night. “Children tend to enjoy pretending that the electricity is out and lighting candles or kerosene lamps, then playing board games or telling stories for an evening,” she says. Undistracted attention is a balm for kids’ souls.