We have a handful of etiquette-related rules at our house, like these, for example:
No feet where you eat.
Say please and thank you.
When someone gives you a gift, send a thank-you card.
Be the kind of guest who gets invited back.
We also have a couple that I never thought -- pre-parenthood -- I'd ever have to say out loud, like the most recent: We wear underwear every day.
As parents, we created these rules to help our girls become civilized human beings who will hopefully know how to make their way in the world, but according concert pianist Wonny Song, civilized isn't enough -- at least not for girls.
The goal of the two week class, which is geared to girls ages 10 to 14, is to teach things like table manners, posture, conversation, fashion and make up and hostessing skills. "We see a lot of young ladies who can benefit from a makeover program," says camp co-creator Angela Chan. "They need to develop their presence."
Apparently, "presence" involves being able to put flowers into a vase (decorating a table is one of the course topics) and knowing which fork goes where. A lot of people are critical of the camp, including sociologist Marc LaFrance. "It might as well be called Wife Camp!," LaFrance tells "MacLeans." "Is Betty Draper happy on 'Mad Men?' " No! She's miserable! Things like makeover camp send the message that a girl's value lies in being entertaining, ornamental, totally innocuous, accommodating and polite. I'm also concerned because it targets girls. Where are the boys?"
Yes, indeed, where are the boys? "There was zero per cent interest from the boys," says Song. "Look, this is not a boot camp to reinforce the notion that girls should stay home. It's not sexist. We would love to include boys, but what can we do?"
Well, Song and Chang could start by creating a class that teaches etiquette to both sexes equally, one that doesn't send the wrong message to one and exclude the other. There may not be too many boys out there who are willing to admit they're interested in table settings, but there are plenty of teens -- boys and girls, alike -- who could use a refresher in manners. Marc McCreavy, one of the program's instructors, defends the camp by saying, "It's important to learn about appropriate topics of conversation and appropriate attire." Yes -- but important for girls and boys.
While I think a camp like this sends the wrong message to girls in general, I suspect there are girls out there who might be interested in it. It's like princess dresses. Moms worry when their little girls want to wear princess dresses -- day in and day out -- that they aren't getting enough exposure to gender neutral activities. But some little girls just want to be princesses, no matter how many trucks you stuff in their toy box.
This class might be a good fit for the kinds of teens who are drawn to this sort of thing, but putting your daughter in it so that you can "make her over?" Uh-uh, no way. Find a horse/art/soccer/whatever-she's-interested-in-camp instead and keep teaching her to write those thank you notes. She'll be just fine.
What do you think? Would you put your daughter into a charm school camp?
Sterling Sisters. Jamie Sterling of Texas has five girls, ages 10 months to six years, all involved in beauty pageants. A devoted, if exasperated, mother, Jamie cherishes the "girly-girl" camaraderie but says she tries to focus on inner beauty first. However, she worries that her own preoccupation with "looking pretty" might eventually send mixed messages. Read on.
Does it bother you that people are quick to judge pageant families?
There's a label that families like us think life is all about looks, and that you always have to be beautiful and be all dolled up. But my girls know that they are beautiful to their Daddy and me, and that's all that matters. They understand love and patience and kindness. We focus on real qualities instead of outer appearance. Pictured: Jamie Sterling surrounded by twins AshLynn and BreAnne, BriLeigh and AinsLee.
Are you strict about makeup, tanning and diet?
I don't take them to the tanning salon, but I will use the spray tan and store-bought nails. It's no different than playing dress-up. They love makeup. It sounds weird, but in my crazy world with five kids, all this girly stuff helps me spend time with them instead of burying myself in laundry and housework. I'm so close to them because of these fun things we do together. Pictured: AshLynn Sterling, 6.
Does your husband participate at all?
We've reached an agreement where he will go to any of the pageants without make-up involved, and without any of the fake nails and hair and stuff. That's our deal. He also won't pay for the pageants, so I pay for those kinds of activities with my own paychecks. He doesn't like the exploitation of it all. Pictured: Brooklyn Sterling, 10 months.
Has anyone ever directly criticized your choice to be a pageant family?
We just moved from Austin. I mentioned to my new neighbor that my girls have done print modeling. She said, "That's okay, but pageants are just not right." I agreed and moved on. Then one day I needed her help -- we were packing up for a pageant, my husband wasn't there, the credit card was missing and everything went wrong. I had to run next door and tell her the truth. She ended up being sweet; it hasn't bothered our relationship one bit. Pictured: AinsLee Sterling, 2.
What do you say when your girls don't win?
It's hard. This idea of winning and losing is a problem lately because one of my twins is excelling more than the other at the pageants. There are times when I don't want to do pageants anymore because I worry it's becoming too hurtful for her. But every parent has to find a way to foster those issues of competitiveness between kids. You have to pick yourself up and keep on going. Pictured: BreAnne Sterling, 6.
Do you see having five beauty queens when they grow up?
When they get to the teenage stage, which I'm not looking forward to, I really think they'll understand the importance of internal beauty and they'll make their own choices from there. I do get nervous about the pageants impacting them in a negative or superficial way. Right now they're so innocent, and we have so much fun with it. I know I need to think harder about the future though. Pictured: Sterling girls, Christmas 2008.
Haley Burkhardt. You could say pageantry found 8-year-old Floridian Haley Burkhardt before her mom had a chance to think twice. "People kept saying, 'You have to get her into pageants and modeling!'" said mom Ashlee Burkhardt. "Everyone said she looked like a porcelain doll, and her personality was so happy, upbeat and cute." After winning her first competition at nine months, this brand new world became all they knew.
Did you have any reservations when she first started?
We were walking through a mall when she was about nine months old, and I saw an ad for a beauty pageant. We decided to give it a try just because so many people had encouraged us to do something with her beautiful face. We never even had time to think about the pros and cons, because she won immediately. Things just took off from there. Pictured: Haley at nine months.
How have pageants affected her social life?
She still shies away from some people, but she truly shines on stage. She was the only child at her preschool graduation who could stand up there without running around or fidgeting. She stood there with a smile on her face. Pictured: Haley, 18 months, winning her first Grand Overall at Sweet Pea Pageants.