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Opening Arguments

You're Amish. Deal with it.

People go into therapy because they don't know who they are or are having trouble facing who they are. So why would we find a psychotherapist among the Amish, who are about as comfortable in their own skins as any group in America? Well, we learn, in this fascinating National Public Radio story, some of the kids who go on Rumspringa adventures, sampling the outside world before settling into Amish life, get into trouble with the police and have to go into court-ordered counseling. So therapist Jim Cates goes to their homes -- they don't like office visits -- to interview them:

Cates says that in important ways, Amish teens are fundamentally different from their mainstream peers.

"If I see a quote unquote normal American teenager in my office, they are probably struggling with what do I want to do, who am I, all of these issues that come up in middle adolescence of who do I want to be?" says Cates.

But that, says Cates, is not the focus for Amish kids.

"What they're going to do is some kind of manual labor, which really doesn't identify who they are; it's just something they do to make money," he says. "If they're going to be Amish, they're going to get married at a young age and stay married for the rest of their lives. So they're not individuating. It's not about 'who am I going to bloom into,' it's about becoming part of a larger group. And that's dramatically different emotionally from what American teenagers do."

And, so, Cates has had to adapt his therapy.

Sometimes I think it would be comforting to know that much as kids about what our adult lives would be, but most of the time it seems like a stifling environment. I would probably have been one of those kids who tiptoed out among the English and never went back.

The whole Rumpsringa thing, by the way, is not part of all Amish communities, at least not the image that has grown in popular culture about horse-and-buggy kids gone wild in the big city. It generally just means "adolescence," from about 16 to baptism or departure from the community. Even the Amish overlook a fair amount of rebellion or misbehavior from their kids that they wouldn't tolerate from adults.

And to pick a small nit (for something I was suprised to encounter at NPR), it's "rite" of passage, not "right" of passage.