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To Tip or Not To Tip Camp Counselors

Posted August 1, 2007

No matter what kind of camp your child is attending this summer, there will be a handful of individuals -- most likely college students -- who will supervise, entertain and comfort him during his time away from home. These adventurous camp counselors have signed on for a summer’s worth of kid-related fun … and challenges.

In many cases, they’re getting paid quite well to do so. But even when their monetary compensation is lacking, camp counselors typically report that they receive a valuable internal reward -- the satisfaction that comes from helping children to learn and grow.

Parents often want to show their appreciation of the counselors' work after their child attends a camp session, but many are unclear about how to proceed.

Is tipping the norm? If so, how much should they offer?

The majority of summer camps fall into one of two distinct categories when it comes to tipping: those that actively encourage and expect tipping, going so far as to include projected tips into their counselors' estimated salaries, and those that absolutely, positively prohibit counselor tipping.

When Tipping Is OK

Once considered a practice unique to camps in the Northeast, counselor tipping is now commonplace at many camps across the country. That’s surprising news for many people.

"Maybe I was kind of naïve when I first started directing camp programs, but I didn’t think the issue of tipping would even come up," says Robert Prout, director of youth programs for the Division of Continual Learning at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the executive director of the All-Arts & Sciences Camp.

"As my wife will attest, I’m sort of a lousy tipper anyway, but I figured that since parents were paying a hefty fee to send their child to camp and the counselors were doing a job for which they were being compensated, why would anyone voluntarily pay more?" Prout says. "Turns out that many people are better tippers than I am -- some extraordinarily so."

Parents choose to tip for a variety of reasons. They may get the message from the camp directly, as is the case when programs with small budgets encourage camper parents to supplement staff salaries with monetary tokens of appreciation, thereby making it easier to recruit and retain quality employees. Or they may be motivated to tip for personal reasons.

"Parents want to feel confident that they’re leaving their children in good hands, and fostering that level of confidence on the front side is more likely to result in a tip when, at the end of the session, the counselor delivers the child back to his or her parents alive, well and happy," Prout says. "On the other hand, when parents know that their child is on the difficult side, sometimes a tip says ‘I’m sorry,’ rather than ‘thank you.'"

If your child is attending a program that allows tipping, the camp’s director is your best guide as to when and how much to tip. As in other situations where tips are encouraged, don’t feel obligated to tip outrageously -- or at all if you feel the service was below par.

If you fear the latter may be the case, don’t wait until camp is over to voice your concerns. If a counselor isn’t doing his or her job, discuss your observations and experience with the camp director, who might be able to address the problem while there’s still time for improvement.

When Tipping Is Not OK

Two common threads of wisdom run through the policies of programs that prohibit tipping: it’s not necessary and it’s not fair.

Rick Civelli, the founder and director of Surf Camp Inc. in Wrightsville Beach, says he believes that parents have the right to expect quality without paying extra.

"My instructors know the level of energy and expectations I have as director," Civelli says. "They are compensated at a rate that is the best in the business, and we throw in perks (surf apparel, raises and bonuses based on their performance and safety record). I feel it is up to us as directors to hand the proverbial carrot, not the parents."

At Camp Horizons in Harrisonburg, Va., campers’ parents are asked not to tip individual counselors because all of the camp staff members work equally hard to make camp a success.

"If parents do want to tip, we suggest that they give to the staff fund, which is used for an end-of-summer banquet," says Kim Betts, associate director of Camp Horizons.

Ann Hertzberg, director of Camp Winding Gap in Lake Toxaway, says her program has a similar philosophy.

"Our camp has a small enrollment and a staff to camper ratio of one to three," Hertzberg says. "This means that all of our staff take part in caring for each and every camper while they are here. Because of this, we do not encourage tips or gifts to any particular member. Instead, we suggest to parents to make a monetary gift to the office so that we can purchase sodas and treats for all staff to enjoy in the counselor area."

The practice of counselor tipping, when allowed, should indicate a family’s support and appreciation of the counselor’s hard work and kindness. But there are plenty of ways to show support during and after camp without flashing cash.

"The best way to support (counselors’) work is to voice approval and give constructive feedback," says Bunny Brown, director emeritus of Skyland Camp for Girls in Clyde. "For example, a parent might say, ‘Sally says she admires your fair and impartial kindness to all, as well as your helpful hints on the tennis court. She would like more help with her overhead volley.’

"Parents can also tell the administration what they liked about individual staffers," Brown says. "An e-mail of thanks from the camper after camp is sufficient. Counselors of grateful campers love to hear from them in winter."

Although camp directors clearly disagree on the subject, a quick call to the camp office will help you determine where your child’s program stands on the issue -- and what it will mean to your wallet in the summer.

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