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The process by which the child gains the knowledge and skills needed to function successfully in adult society is called socialization. The chief agency of socialization in modern western societies is the family, since it has full and nearly exclusive access to the child doing the early, most formative years. Other agencies, particularly the school and the church, supplement the family's socialization role.

Childrearing is therefore a function of all those agencies and institutions that affect a child's learning process: school, church, peer groups, family, television, motion pictures, and all other settings that provide educational experiences. Nevertheless, the most basic learnings -- language, personal habits, work skills, values, etc. -- are gained in the family context before other agencies have much access to the child. Although it is generally agreed that the family is still the primary socializing agency, social scientists have noted that many family functions are being transferred to other agencies, in part at least. Nurseries and child-care centers are only the most recent of 20th-century agencies to take over aspects of child training. A major issue is whether the shift of childrearing functions away from the family enhances or impedes the process of preparing, children for adult life (Bender, 90).

At the heart of the socialization process is the inculcation of the basic beliefs, values, attitudes, and social mores that will guide the individual into socially accepted and responsible adult roles. That is, a well-socialized individual will accept, rather than reject, the values of society, and not become a social deviant.

Within a religious context, the highest values are those centered in doctrinal beliefs and in the ethical and moral standards advanced by the churches. Therefore, the goal of childrearing within religious groups, Mennonites as well its others, is to help each generation of children and young people to reach a level of spiritual maturity that will cause them to accept and remain within the framework of their religious heritage. It appears that parents in all societies hope their children will adopt and support the faith of their fathers and mothers in general, if not in all particulars. If the children reject the faith, it is somehow a reflection upon the process of parenting.

Since within the Mennonite context individuals are not incorporated into the body of the church through infant baptism it becomes doubly important that the religious socialization process be successful. Otherwise the developing youth will not accept through individual choice membership in their parents' church. Mennonites have thus supported a strong teaching program, both within the home and the church, that emphasizes the spiritual values to be inculcated.

To understand the Mennonite context, it may be helpful to posit two contrasting approaches to childrearing: a conservative view and a liberal view. The conservative view holds that the body of religious knowledge has already been given and it is the task of each generation of parents to "train up children in the way they should go," so that when the children are older (i.e., adults) they "will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). It is assumed that the desired results will be achieved through a strong indoctrination program. This is a somewhat pessimistic view which holds that, left to their own devices, i.e., to the freedom of self-determination, children will go wrong. The time-tested standards of right and wrong have been determined by religious authority of the Bible and the church leadership, and are not to be questioned or altered. The child will become a responsible adult only if properly trained and, if necessary, disciplined. Certain social boundaries are imposed so that the child will not be faced by "the temptations of the world." In its more extreme manifestations, child training and discipline is embedded in a doctrine of "spare the rod and spoil the child." If the child shows tendencies to rebelliousness, his "will must be broken." The authority of parent over child is buttressed by a larger system of authority figures, normally male, who administer the "rules and discipline" and order the social structures of church and community beyond the family.

The liberal approach posits a more optimistic view of the individual, rooted in the findings of mid-20th century social psychology and psychiatry. This argues that, given an emotional climate of love, trust, and acceptance in the home, the developing individual will come to accept the values of' the social system, not because he is required to do so under pain of punishment if he does not, but because he has warm and kindly feelings toward those people (parents, teachers, etc.) who model and teach the system's prevailing values. There is an emphasis on the need for the individual to accept these values on the basis of mature personal choice rather than imposition by authorities. Imposition by authorities in this view, is thought more likely to lead to a child's perceived lack of freedom and consequent rebelliousness.

Hutterite, Amish, and Mennonite families are ranged along a continuum between these contrasting philosophies of childrearing. The Hutterite, Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonite, and Old Colony Mennonite family systems reflect the conservative view. Various social and cultural boundaries (language, church-operated schools, denial of radio, television, etc.) are maintained in order to limit the child's contact with the outside world. Few occupational choices beyond farming or closely related trades are available. Travel is limited. The whole socialization process is based on the assumption that the outside world is evil, and children can be safely reared only within the limits of the isolated colony or religious community in which the children receive clearly defined and unmixed messages as to what is right and what is wrong with respect to how life is to he lived and how one should think and believe.

The more modernized Mennonite groups reflect the liberal view of child development, being influenced by the social sciences (psychology, professional education, family sociology) and the philosophies of individualism and personal freedom. Mennonite educators stress the importance of positive reinforcement rather than negative sanctions; parental guidance by word and example, rather than corporal punishment; and the child's assumption of responsibility for her own choices and decisions as early as her age and maturity will permit. The qualities of love, acceptance, security, and a sense of belongingness are emphasized ("Christian Family Relationships," 1959). A Mennonite psychiatrist found that rigidities and strict discipline of children in some families yields parent-child conflicts that result in alienation, depression, and other child personality disorders (Loux, 1961).

In support of these views, Kauffman's survey of Midwest Mennonite families indicated that teenagers were more likely to accept Mennonite values when the parents themselves had a high acceptance of' those values and when the quality of emotional relationships between child and the parents was higher (Kauffman, 1960). The same study revealed that the quality of interpersonal relationships (child-parent, husband-wife) was somewhat greater when authority was shared more equally between father and mother than when one parent dominated the other. Thus childrearing outcomes appear to be improved when traditional patriarchal models of family organization and discipline are replaced with more democratic, authority-sharing patterns. Subsequent research indicated that the quality of child-parent relationships is best when the child perceives a high level of affection from parents, combined with a perceived low level of disciplinary control. Child rebelliousness is more likely to result when the child experiences a high level of parental control and a low level of parental affection.

Mennonite doctrine holds that the infant or small child is not sinful by nature, but that at "the age of accountability" the child should acknowledge his sin, accept the sacrificial atonement of Christ for his sin through confession and forgiveness, and be baptized into the fellowship of the church (Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963). In the absence of infant baptism, in some congregations it is customary for parents to present themselves and their infant in a service of dedication in which they pledge themselves to rear the child in the Christian faith. The appropriateness of this ceremony is stated in the 1963 Mennonite (MC) Confession of Faith.

Baptism is one evidence of parental success in childrearing, since the major goal of bringing the child to acceptance of the parents' faith is thereby signified. Among the more conservative groups, baptism occurs just prior to marriage, signifying the individual's readiness to come under the rules and discipline of the church. Among the more acculturated Mennonite groups, baptism usually occurs in the teen years. The 1972 church member survey indicated that the age of baptism is as early as nine or ten years in a few cases, but with median ages as follows: Mennonite Church (MC), 14.0 years; General Conference Mennonite Church, 16.4; Mennonite Brethren, 16.4; Brethren in Christ, 14.1; Evangelical Mennonite Church, 14.9 (Kauffman and Harder, 70). The higher age at baptism of the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites appears to reflect the older age at baptism typical of more recent immigrants from Europe.

During the era of revival meetings in the United States and Canada (ca. 1920 to 1960), greater emotional pressures were put upon children and teenagers to make "commitments to Christ," and this resulted in a gradual lowering of the age at baptism, so much so that by the 1960s there was concern among these groups that children were joining the church before they were mature enough to understand the seriousness and significance of the act. Subsequently there has been a gradual increase in the age at baptism (Harder, 1971, p. 37).

Among Mennonite and related groups, it appears that the Hutterites have the lowest rate of defection of youth from their religious heritage. Hostetler reports that less than two percent of the total population, but about seven percent of males over 15 years of age, defected between 1918 and 1950. Thus the socialization of Hutterite children and youth appears to be very effective. Also the rate of mental disorders is reported to be unusually low among Hutterites (Eaton and Weil, 1955).

Among the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, the loss rate for persons born prior to 1940 was 22 percent (Hostetler, 1980, p. 106). Data on 554 children born to Mennonite (MC) parents between 1938 and 1964, indicated that in 1979, 30 percent were not members of Mennonite churches. Twenty-four percent were members of other Christian denominations, while six percent were not members of any church, three percent having never been baptized. Other studies of membership losses, and reasons therefore, were made by Hostetler (1954) and Harder (1971, 1982), but comparable loss rates by birth cohorts were not obtained.

If success in childrearing is measured by success in the retention of offspring within the religious body, it appears that the more conservative groups have the most success. Quite different conclusions might be reached if other criteria of successful childrearing are used; for example, the proportion of youth who enter missionary, evangelistic, or service programs. Further studies need to be made before more general conclusions can be reached as to what patterns of childrearing yield the most desired results.

See also Children; Christian Education


Amstutz, H. Clair. Becoming Parents. Scottdale, 1952.

Bender, Ross T. Christians in Families. Scottdale, 1982: 78-105.

"Christian Family Relationships," Proceedings of the Study Conference on Home Interests Sponsored by the Mennonite Commission for Christian Education, held at Goshen College 28-31, 1959, unpublished, copy at Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen).

Eaton, Joseph W. and Robert J. Weil. Culture and Mental Disorders. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955: 46-54.

Glimpses of Amish-Mennonite Homes (ca. 1906).

Harder, Leland. Factbook of Congregational Membership (GCM). Tthe author, 1971: 20-29.

Harder, Leland. Fact Book of Congregational Membership, 1980-81 (GCM). Tthe author, 1982.

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 172-77, 106.

Hostetler, John A.  Hutterite Society.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974: 201-20, 273.

Hostetler, John A. The Sociology of Mennonite Evangelism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954: 175-83, 220-46.

Hutterian Brethren, ed., Children in Community. Rifton, N.Y.: Plough, 1963.

Kauffman, J. Howard. "A Comparative Study of Traditional and Emergent Family Types Among Midwest Mennonites." Ph.D. diss., U. of Chicago, 1960: 126-34.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.

Loux, Norman. "The Home and Personality." Christian Living (March 1961: 28-30.

The Sword and Trumpet, e.g., "The Responsibility of Training Children," in vol. 55, no. 3 (Harrisonburg Va., March 1988).

Author(s) J. Howard Kauffman
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Kauffman, J. Howard. "Childrearing." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Jul 2022.

APA style

Kauffman, J. Howard. (1989). Childrearing. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 137-139. All rights reserved.

©1996-2022 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.