Arts & Culture

Opinion: Cotillion Is a Bizarre Form of Torture for Eleven-Year-Olds. Here’s Why It’s Worth It

Kids today rarely need to practice proper etiquette, which is exactly why they should learn it

photo: Allison Entrekin

The writer's son (center) and friends at cotillion.

When I registered my eleven-year-old son for cotillion, I didn’t tell him. When I bought him the required attire—jacket, dress shirt, tie, slacks, loafers—I didn’t tell him. When I recruited some of his friends’ moms to sign their kids up for cotillion too, I didn’t tell him. And when the first session loomed so imminently that I had no choice but to tell him, he was every bit as hacked off as I’d expected.

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“You mean I have to spend FOUR Sunday afternoons getting all dressed up, learning manners, and dancing with girls? Why?!”

Here’s why: Because knowing how to do these things is important, even if you’re rarely in situations where such skills are put to use. I realize our culture is far more casual than it used to be. People fly in their pajamas. Our church allows jeans. I hardly ever take our wedding china out of the cabinet. Kids text instead of call, so they don’t know how to leave proper voicemails. I honestly can’t think of a scenario in which my son would need to know how to dance the box step. 

But it’s precisely because of all this that I believe cotillion is important. Since the early eighties, these etiquette classes have taught courtesy, table manners, and social dances to middle schoolers (ironically the age group least likely to appreciate the cha-cha). Cotillions are offered across the country but primarily in the South, and they culminate in a final session in which parents observe what their kids have—or have not—learned. (This ties to the origin of the word “cotillion,” which used to mean the final dance at eighteenth-century European balls.) When I was a middle schooler, I took cotillion. And while I’m no Emily Post, I do know little rules like “always pass the salt and pepper together” as a result.

I firmly believe my son needs an adult voice (besides his mama’s) telling him it’s important to put his napkin in his lap and keep his elbows off the table. And someone to role-play how he could offer a greeting and identify himself if and when he makes a real, live phone call. He could use a reminder about the importance of thank-you notes. He ought to learn how to dress nicely, ask a girl to dance, and thank her when said dance is finished. (Audibly please, Son.) There is an art to etiquette, and it is rapidly being lost. I am willing to pay $200 and deal with an angry kid to help ensure it gets passed at least one generation further.

My son attended all his cotillion lessons and—no surprise—says each one was “torture.” Most torturous of all? Having to dance with girls he didn’t know and give them a spin without accidentally pulling their gloves off (yes, all the girls wore white gloves). “It’s so annoying, Mom,” he groaned. “YOU don’t even wear gloves to parties!” He has a point.

Post-cotillion, I haven’t noticed much of a difference in his manners, and he still complains when I make him write thank-you notes. But that’s okay, because the same cotillion will be held next year, and I have a good mind to sign him up for another go. And you’d better believe, I’m not going to tell him ’til I have to.