News & Politics

“I Have to Dance?”: Kids and Cotillions

Etiquette classes and cotillions that teach kids to mind their manners are growing in popularity—among parents, that is.

Malachi’s mom told him that if he didn’t “straighten up,” she’d send him to an etiquette class.

Not exactly boot camp or reform school, but on this gorgeous spring day, it feels like prison to the Green Acres fifth-grader. “It’s a really cool day, and I’m stuck in here eating finger weenies,” says the 11-year-old boy in a navy suit, looking out the window of a meeting room at DC’s Fairmont hotel.

There was no major transgression that landed Malachi in etiquette class, where he’s learning how to write thank-you notes, handle hors d’oeuvres, and make introductions. In fact, says his mom, Paige McDonald, teachers often comment on how polite her son is. But she wants to smooth out some of the rough edges. “I really want him to be a gentleman,” says McDonald, an acting branch chief at the National Cancer Institute.

Nine-year-old Taylor, in a pink sundress, matching bow, and tears, is equally dismayed at her fate. She’s hiding behind her mother, reluctant to go into Carole Margaret Randolph’s etiquette class. “I had to miss a bowling party for this,” the third-grader laments.

Her mother, Noel Bradley of Chevy Chase, believes it’s a sacrifice well worth it. “You can’t have enough manners these days,” she says. “I jumped on this as soon as I heard about it. Manners have fallen by the wayside. It’s almost like ‘We’ve got money, power, and wealth—what do we need with manners?’ ”

She’d already signed Taylor up for Mrs. Simpson’s cotillion classes this year. Taylor had a better attitude about them when she heard she would get to wear white gloves and fancy clothes and dance with boys who would bring her punch and cookies. “It sounds romantic,” the young girl told her mom.

“This is not about romance,” her mother said. “It’s about learning how to conduct yourself with a nice dress on.”

In an age of privilege and overindulgence of children, of black-tie birthday parties for six-year-olds, cell phones and iPods for nine-year-olds, and heavier schedules for 12-year-olds than for most CEOs, parents such as McDonald and Bradley say they’re realizing there’s one thing—perhaps only one thing—that many kids today are lacking: manners.

“I call it the McManners generation,” says Dorothea Johnson, founder and chair of the Protocol School of Washington, which trains and certifies etiquette and protocol instructors. “Kids who come from very affluent families don’t even know how to hold a fork.”

More parents are taking note of such deficiencies in their kids—whether it’s a failure to hold a fork properly or make eye contact when speaking to an adult—and are adding etiquette training to their children’s lineup of activities.

“Mothers often say to me, ‘I get so little time with my children, I want it to be quality time. I don’t always want to be correcting them.’ And they will gladly pay someone else to do it,” says Johnson.

Pamela Eyring, director of the Protocol School, notes that parents often turn to such classes because their kids have become “parent deaf” and take lessons more seriously if they come from outsiders.

She says that in the past three years, the demand for etiquette training has increased by almost 80 percent: “It took us 20 years, but now the pendulum is swinging back to more civility.”

Carole Randolph, who holds workshops several times a year at the Fairmont, had retired from the etiquette business when a flurry of demand brought her back to the p’s and q’s. Now, she says, she gets requests for classes from all sorts of groups, even an American University fraternity.

Single-day classes—like Randolph’s and others held at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner and other hotels—often focus on place settings and table manners as well as such social skills as making introductions, using the “magic words,” and answering the phone.

Ms. Randolph: “When someone calls and asks for your father and he’s not there, I’d prefer you to say ‘He’s not available’ rather than ‘He’s not home.’ Why do we not say Mother or Father is not at home?”

Maryanna: “Maybe your parents are really there but don’t want to speak to the person on the phone.”

Ms. Randolph: “Let’s talk about good and bad times to call someone. I think a good time to start calling in the morning is 10 o’clock.”

William: That doesn’t really work for me because I sleep really late.”

Taylor: “If you’re on the phone and your little brother is pestering you, can you say, ‘Hold on a minute,’ and then scream, ‘STOP BUGGING ME’?”

Ms. Randolph: “No, you cannot put the phone down and then go yelling at the top of your lungs.”

Along with the single-day course on manners, usually costing about $100, cotillion programs that teach etiquette along with ballroom dancing to well-scrubbed kids have become increasingly popular.

Once the domain of private-school and country-club families, such “dance clubs” are becoming nearly as common an afterschool activity as soccer. They’re still generally by invitation, but in many cases invitations go out to an entire grade, often at a public school.

Groups such as the National League of Junior Cotillions, which has ten chapters in Northern Virginia, and the Capital Cotillion in Maryland mix in manners and social graces with lessons in everything from the electric slide—fourth-grade boys are loathe to “partner up” and hold hands with girls—to the waltz.

“The kids foxtrot to the Dixie Chicks, and we talk etiquette at the break,” says Perry Guy, one of the founders of the Virginia Cotillion, which draws from two dozen public and private schools including St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, where the dances are held.

Guy says her group has grown from fewer than 100 students a decade ago to nearly 400 today. A junior cotillion that started in Loudoun County four years ago has been growing by about 100 students a year and now has almost 700 members.

“I’m on the phone constantly taking calls,” says director Jean Ann Michie. “Manners and etiquette have gone so far in the wrong direction that there is definitely a shift in the minds of parents as they reflect on how they want to raise their children.” She thinks TV shows like Dancing With the Stars have also helped boost interest.

The most legendary cotillion in the area is Mrs. Simpson’s, once the subject of a civil-rights complaint by the District because of allegedly discriminatory practices. Though more diverse these days, it’s still considered the most elite and formal of the clubs. Nine-year-old girls are required to wear semiformal dresses “of a proper length” and stockings, while boys must wear suits with “well-pressed dark trousers” and dress shoes. Kids learn all the traditional ballroom dances but first have to navigate a receiving line of parent chaperones as well as the formally clad Mrs. Edmund Gordon Simpson, as the director refers to herself. Even the parents have to abide by a dress code: “No dress slacks, evening pants or pant dresses for the mothers.”

Ms. Randolph: “Does anybody know what a receiving line is?”

Taylor: “There was a receiving line in The Sound of Music.”

Ms. Randolph: “What do you do in a receiving line?”

Maryanna: “I go try to find my friends.”

Ms. Randolph: “Don’t carry a drink with you in a receiving line, and make sure you have clean hands. And you want to keep your conversation short and sweet.”

Crystal: “Is it rude to say, ‘How’s your life?’ ”

Noel Bradley says she was dismayed when a five-year-old boy who was at her house playing with her son ignored her request that he pick up some candy wrappers he’d thrown on the floor. “He just blew me off,” she says.

Chevy Chase therapist Ann Turner, a mother of two young daughters, notices that children often don’t bother with the basics. “Especially in this area, where we have so much, you find kids who don’t stop and do something as basic as say ‘thank you’ when a waiter puts food down in front of them.”

Parenting experts and counselors propose all sorts of theories for the lack of common courtesy among kids. Some blame technology, with e-mail and text messaging taking the place of face-to-face conversation. Others point to today’s busy lifestyle, where two working parents are often juggling the demands of heavily scheduled kids. Family dinners around the table are no more part of the picture than a rotary phone.

“Good table manners for us was stopping at a McDonald’s on the way to soccer and saying, ‘I’d like a number six, please,” says Denise Rosson, a Severna Park mother whose own experiences led her to develop a manners program, Tadpole Dreams, with a friend. It’s now taught in a number of school systems throughout the country, including some in Maryland.

Some parents wonder if the familiarity between children and adults—at many private schools in the area, students address teachers by their first names—has led to a lack of respect among kids.

Many experts think kids are merely copying the behavior they see and hear all around them, from the soccer coach who’s yelling at a child to TV shows to parents themselves.

“The culture has become tolerant of bad behavior,” says Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. “Not only tolerant, but we celebrate it.” She points to shows like My Super Sweet 16, an MTV reality series about spoiled rich teens.

Levine applauds the growing attentiveness of parents to their children’s behavior but not the trend of outsourcing the corrections: “Why in the world do you need a class for basic common decency? Parents have to jump in with their own two feet and stop farming out their children’s development to others. I’d be more enthusiastic about the proposition of parents inventorying themselves and the way they act and speak to the people in their lives.”

But parents say they believe such classes help reinforce lessons they try to teach at home. “Like a lot of experiences you engineer for your child, you’re not quite sure which ones will have long-range value,” says Jane Nober, who sent her son to Capital Cotillion so he would hear about the importance of eye contact and saying “please” and “thank you” from someone other than his mother or father.

“Please don’t forget the smile, and do look me in the eye,” Ms. Randolph tells the students as she shakes each hand.

Caitlin’s handshake is rejected as wimpy. Katie and Callie fail to make eye contact on their first tries. Robert looks down and mumbles.

“Robert, can you say your name a little bit more like you mean it,” says Ms. Randolph, “and kind of pleasant?”

Robert, too, is there against his will; his mother told him if he didn’t go to this class, she’d take away his computer.

Then there’s Anna, a tall girl in an ankle-length dress who gives no sign of needing an etiquette class: “Hello, Miss Randolph. I’m Anna. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Anna’s voice is loud. Her posture ramrod straight. Her grip firm. Her eye contact dead on.

She has set the bar high. The other children sink in their seats.

“Very good,” says Ms. Randolph.

Still, Anna is told to see the teacher after class. It seems some lessons are best delivered in private.

“Knees together,” Ms. Randolph later whispers to the young girl, who was sitting in a less-than-ladylike position. A mother who has come to pick up her daughter overhears the advice and smiles.

Like most rules of etiquette, the mom tells the teacher, “It’s a good lesson for life.”

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].