My husband and I have relentlessly taught our children to hold doors for people. We’ve told them they need to ask to be excused from the dinner table and they’re aware they should write “Thank You” notes for gifts. Trouble is, my boys haven’t exactly internalized those lessons. Over the years, I’ve seen that I needed reinforcements. Enter: Cotillion prep.
And yet I came to an awkward realization when a friend recently asked me why in the world I’d send my sons to cotillion. Aloud, I explained to her that the classes were simply basic manners and dance. In my head, I suddenly became aware that if I’d had a daughter instead of sons I’d never have thought to enroll her in anything close to cotillion.
If I’d had a daughter, I wouldn’t have wanted her learning the gender baggage that goes along with programs like this. As gleeful as I was to get my boys into suits and ties, I’d never have pressured a girl into a dress with white gloves. And I wasn’t alone. In my kids’ classes, many more parents of boys signed up their sons. There was even a last minute campaign to recruit girls.
Why were parents of boys so eager and parents of girls so reluctant? I think it’s because the drawbacks of sending a girl to cotillion are more obvious to all of us. Sending girls to a manners class where boys “choose” them to dance or they learn how to set a table sends the message that they’re expected to grow up to be perfect hostesses. It doesn’t matter that the boys are learning the same domestic skills alongside the girls. If we teach these things to girls, it feels like we’re betraying them.
I completely understand these concerns. But what’s amazing to me is that parents of boys (like me) so rarely think about how these gender expectations impact their sons. There are two reasons why. First, these gender rules don’t seem so bad for boys. A suit doesn’t seem as constraining as a party dress. Second, we’re desperate to civilize them. There’s an everyday reality that our boys can come across as loud, inconsiderate and sloppy. I’ll share what it’s like for me:
1. My sons move fast - and in doing so they can be blind to people around them. They literally have closed the door in the face of an elderly person. In spite of making them stand for fifteen minutes and open doors as a “teachable moment” (after doing this to that older woman), they still need more opportunities to slow down.
2. Last year, we moved to Boulder, Colorado from Washington D.C. Dressing up in Boulder means wearing darker jeans and a new flannel shirt. I’m sorry but my East Coast self just can’t handle that. Different situations demand different attire.
3. I strongly believe that personal style shows how a person wants to present himself to the world. That is entirely different than my son picking up the sweat pants he dropped on the floor last night and putting them back on because he can’t be bothered to open the clothes drawer. Honestly, I’d much rather have a kid who spiked his hair into a huge Mohawk and wore black skinny jeans than one who wears dirty sweatpants with holes in them - my boys’ go-to outfit.
4. Everyone needs practice dealing with horribly awkward social situations. And what’s more excruciatingly awkward than a school dance? By the time my boys walk into their first “Under the Sea”-themed 8th grade dance, they’ll feel a little more experienced and at ease with the whole thing.
But the question of gender baggage is important. I don’t want my children thinking that they should be polite to girls because they’re delicate or that boys fit into a “boy box” and girls fit into a “girl box.” Or that anyone who doesn’t fit or doesn’t want to fit into those boxes is somehow less worthy. So, while my husband and I talk to them about that in countless ways, this process has made me link these conversations and values to these classes. And yes, they’re rolling their eyes, and sighing as they say, “I know mom” but that’s totally fine.
The bottom line is I want them learning basic manners, giving up their seats and opening doors for anyone because they need to look out for and be considerate of other people. But there’s another thing. Last month, at my aunt’s birthday party, my older son asked my mom to dance. As I watched them, you can imagine how I felt. I may have to sign them up again next year.