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Small Talk: Boy offers sage marriage advice

Enjoy one from the archives.

With the coming of the fall, will come my last effort to truly civilize my children.

Here in Southern California, the land that made sneakers, blue jeans and the sweatsuit into formal wear, it has been an uphill battle. Nevertheless, I have decided to take advantage of the last bastion of tradition. I will try to provide my children with a sense of the formal occasion and the lessons in common courtesy that will pave the way to that job as an international diplomat, or at least prevent grossing out their fiancée’s mother. This month we begin cotillion.

The very world cotillion prompts visions of classic Victorian behavior. For some, that is a lovely, refined vision. For others, it is a vision akin to the rocks surrounding Alcatraz. Cotillion meant white gloves, tight collars, coats and ties, the box step, and drinking tea with your little finger extended. It still requires gloves and the box step, but the bottom line is simply good manners and social ease.

There was discussion between husbands and wives throughout the neighborhood, as we signed the kids up. What possible reason, many of the husbands asked, could there be, in the Year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight, to make children learn “etiquette”?

The moms calmly dusted off that wonderful phrase, “Good manners never go out of style.” It is still important to know how to offer and accept a dance invitation and interact gracefully with your peers. Then we reminded the fathers of the horror of their first school dance.

But the perfect explanation was provided by my son’s 10-year-old buddy, who adores baseball. Putting it into terms they could all understand, he set his buddies’ minds at ease, as we carpooled to junior lifeguards. Cotillion, he said, was like minor-league dating. You went there to practice, so that when you get to the major leagues, high school and college, you would know what to do.

This young man bravely admitted to his pals that he probably wanted to get married someday, and that marriage was like the World Series. If you didn’t get the rules and skills of the sport down early on, you might risk divorce, which was like being traded.

I truly could not have explained it better myself, and believe me, I tried. Most of the kids are still mildly revolted at the idea of dancing with the opposite sex, but they will bear up.

Someday, with kids of their own, these same youngsters will realize they would like their offspring to have a social life. They may even contemplate their children’s future in the diplomatic corps. As long as parents face this moment of clarity, cotillion’s tradition training camp will never close.

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who will watch that young philosopher make it to the World Series tomorrow, at his wedding. Contact her at

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