Rachel Cook arrived for tea promptly at 4 o'clock, wearing a crisp new party dress and a white bow riding atop her blond curls. The 11-year-old La Habra girl sat on the edge of a ruffle-covered couch, keeping her knees and feet together in prim, ladylike fashion.
One by one, the other girls came, a parade of curls and bows, lace and white stockings. They sat down on fluffy cushions and looked at each other, then stared down at their white shoes.
Nobody spoke for fear of breaking some unknown rule of etiquette. How to talk with strangers was a topic not yet covered at Florence Smales School of Charm, Image and Modeling in Fullerton, where nine girls between the ages of 9 and 12 had enrolled in a 12-week course to develop their social graces.
That such a refined scene should be played out in the '90s would make Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt nod approvingly.
Children are once again learning to mind their manners.
At charm school and manners classes, they are learning all of the niceties of civilized behavior, such as which fork to use for salad, how to fold a napkin, how to shake hands and what to do when being introduced.
"I'm learning how to be proper. Now I sit like this," says Rachel, showing how she keeps her legs pressed tightly together with her knees angled slightly to the side. "I never used to do that when I was little."
Her mother, Elizabeth Larocco, has noticed immediate changes in Rachel's behavior.
"It's something she would never learn from me," she says. "She corrects me all the time. She'll say, 'Mom, don't do that with your nails.' "
"We've gotten sloppy about manners," says Cheryl Moore, who teaches manners classes with partner Laura Little through Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano Library, local Brownie troops and in their Laguna Niguel homes. "Traditionally, manners are handed down from generation to generation, but sometimes there's a hole between generations," they remind.
Moore blames fast food for contributing to the demise of etiquette. The sit-down family dinner, once the training ground (and sometimes battlefield) for good manners, has vanished. One does not set a proper table to serve a McDonald's Happy Meal. With more people eating finger food--pizza, chicken, French fries, hamburgers--there's no need to even use utensils, she points out.
It's especially difficult to practice good manners in laid-back Southern California, Moore says. "The East has more cultural entertainments such as museums and theaters where good manners are essential. Here, the water and weather take people away from cultural things. People have picnics on the beach where they don't have to mind their manners."
Bad manners can signify a more serious problem--the lack of communication between parents and children.
Parents have become too preoccupied with demanding jobs to pay attention to their youngsters, says Bonnie McLennan, a marriage, family and child therapist in San Juan Capistrano. Children grab what little attention they can by being loud, demanding or disobedient, especially at the dinner table.
"Kids are not feeling their parents' emotional presence. That's why they're acting up," McLennan says. "Consideration and respect--which is what manners are--don't bring children the attention they're starving for. Manners teach us not to hog the conversation, but children do."
Moore and Little have observed the resurgent interest in etiquette firsthand. Because of its rapid growth, Orange County has taken on big city airs, and there's a waiting list of parents wanting to enroll their children in Moore's and Little's "Modern Manners for Young People," a class for boys and girls, 8 to 12 years old, at Saddleback.
After learning how to speak on the telephone, handle an introduction and conduct themselves at the table or in a restaurant, the children dress in party clothes and meet at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point for an English tea--a kind of final exam to show what they've learned.
"We serve little tea sandwiches, tea and hot chocolate," Little says. "A lot of the kids order tea even though they've never had it before. It's cute--they never know what to do with their tea bags."
In response to growing interest in its etiquette program, the Florence Smales charm school added a formal tea party to the juniors' charm course six months ago.
"There's been a return to elegance since the Reagan era," says Nancy Trimino, school director. "We've especially noticed it this past year. The course has become much more popular. There's a waiting list. Parents again are seeing the importance of etiquette."
Parents pay $275 to have the rules of etiquette reinforced by a third party.
"Girls don't always want to listen to their mothers," Trimino says. But they will listen to their charm teacher.