Summer Camp and Tipping: What You Need to Know

Filed under: Work Life, Childcare, Tween Culture, Teen Culture, Expert Advice: Big Kids, Expert Advice: Tweens

Should you slip some cash to your kid's camp counselor? Credit: Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains / AP

Soon, parents everywhere will be packing up their children and sending them off for the adventure of a lifetime at summer camp. It's a time-honored tradition in many families and one that both kids and parents look forward to. But while you've shelled out the cash for the camp itself and all the necessary gear, there may be one expense you've overlooked: Tips.

Back in the day, tipping camp counselors was not common. But times have changed and along with it, the expectation of a little something extra for the person who has so lovingly cared for your child at summer camp. Because tipping is generally considered voluntary and different camps have different policies regarding the practice, it can be confusing for a parent to know just who and how much to tip.

The majority of summer camps, whether they are sleep-away or day camps, fall into one of three different categories when it comes to tipping. Some camps actively encourage and expect it, some strictly prohibit it and others take no official position on the matter, leaving it up to parents to read between the lines and determine for themselves if a tip is an appropriate gesture of thanks. In most cases, a camp's tipping policy will be included in the literature provided to families before the first day of camp. If in doubt, always ask the camp director.

Arlene Streisand is the executive director of Camp Specialists, a free referral service for campers in the Northeast and Southeast. She says that with very few exceptions, the camps she works with strictly forbid their counselors from accepting tips. In fact, she says parents who insist on giving a gift of cash despite a no-tipping policy might ultimately be jeopardizing that counselor's job. "If they say no tipping, they really mean it," she says.

Marla Coleman, spokesperson for the American Camp Association, agrees. "Camp policies are well thought-out and because campers and their parents are all part of a community, it is important that everyone follow the rules," she says.

But what about camps that encourage tipping? Unless you are unhappy with your child's experience, a situation that should be addressed well before the end of camp, a tip is a wonderful way to show appreciation. In fact, counselors who work at camps where tipping is allowed often count on that money as part of their pay. But more important is the message that a tip sends to the counselor, says Coleman. "A counselor who does not receive a tip will likely be more concerned about what went wrong than about the missing money," she says.

And what's with the "tipping optional" policy? That is not as mysterious as it sounds. Unless there's a problem, counselors at such camps can and should be tipped, says Coleman.

How much to tip is always a matter of personal discretion, but at camps where tipping is allowed, guidelines are usually provided in the camp literature. And while you are passing out cash gifts, don't forget swimming counselors, bus drivers and anyone else who went above and beyond to help make your child's camping experience a positive one.

As much as counselors appreciate tips, Coleman says there are other ways to express your gratitude beyond giving money. "A note of thanks from the parent to the counselor is nice, but nothing can really beat a handwritten letter from a child," she says. And if a camp counselor has done an especially great job, why not let the camp director know as well? A glowing letter from a parent speaks volumes about a counselor's value and might even help ensure that he or she will be there next year when your child returns to camp.

Related: Riding the Rails: Backpack Through Europe With the Kids

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.