Should you tip your kid's camp counselors? The answer is tricky

Don't know who to tip, or how much? Neither does anybody else

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 6, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Hands holding banknotes (Getty Images/Jamie Grill)
Hands holding banknotes (Getty Images/Jamie Grill)

It was the last afternoon of the last day of the boy's summer session at the private day camp, nestled in a neighborhood of Brooklyn famed for its density of affluent, liberal parents. His father arrived, right on time, to pick the boy up and offer his family's goodbyes and gratitude to the staff. He discreetly handed the teenage girl who'd been one of the boy's counselors an envelope, which she in turn discreetly tucked into her bag. Inside was a note that read "Thank you" … and a single five dollar bill. Tipping — it's awkward.

How is it that a primary driving force of our economy can also be a custom so fraught with confusion and controversy? "We don't know exactly how much is tipped," said Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and the author of over 70 research publications on tipping. "But reasonable estimates place it at about 40, maybe it's even 45, billion a year in food service in the United States alone. When you throw in all the other service providers in other countries, it's a lot of money."

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In the days since my daughter's receipt of that envelope, I have been thinking a lot about tipping. How the rules seem to fluctuate depending on the nature of the job, the current and implied future relationship of the parties involved, and even geography. Tipping is such an integral part of our day to day exchange of goods and services, yet there is almost no consensus on how to do it. It has been weighing on me lately, in our gig economy of great resignation where everyone's a contractor and everyone's a client, how we talk so little about our most personal financial transactions.

"When tipping is functioning and working at its best, it's a genuine expression of gratitude."

Let's start with the very basics — what tips are, and why we bestow them.

"I think of it as a voluntary monetary payment to a service provider," said Lynn.

Daniel Post Senning, co-president of the Emily Post Institute, likes to focus on the term "gratuity" and its relationship to gratitude when asked about tipping etiquette. 

"When something like tipping is functioning and working at its best, it's a genuine expression of gratitude, and it can be received in that same spirit. When that exchange is working well, it's actually a really pro-social behavior, it's positive for both parties," said Post Senning. "Whether we're talking about a thank you note after a gift, or an acknowledgement of a favor done, or a well delivered tip, I think there's a potential for it to really benefit a relationship."

But of course, a gift or a note carries a different meaning than a sum of money. So how much would you have tipped your child's camp counselor? Should a camp counselor be tipped at all?

A 2016 MarketWatch feature by Angela Moore offered some answers: "A handful of parents I spoke to said their day camps provided them with recommended tip amounts. The suggestions were roughly $40 to $60 tips for counselors, $25 for bus or van drivers, $20 to $40 for bus counselors, and $20 for various instructors."

Yet a 2022 Real Simple feature on tipping sternly classifies camp counselors among the "people you should never tip." 

That lack of consensus holds true for a multitude of professions, and the expectations are shifting all the time. The startup digital tipping platform Applause, for example, was created to bring tipping "into environments where it just wasn't common before," said cofounder J. Taylor Olson. "There were a couple areas where we just instinctively thought, 'I'll bet people will tip there if we make it easy and digital. Home service providers. Your plumber, your pest control guy, your maid, call center agents that help with customer support. We've been able to test it affirmatively in a lot of home service environments, and it definitely works there. People will tip, even though it's new."

"There's a lot of questions that you'll ask me that I don't know the answer to," Lynn said when I tell him I want to better understand the mechanics of tipping. "It's complicated."

Lynn's research on the topic is fascinatingly complex and relentlessly circumstance specific. "Existing research suggests that tipping is motivated by desires to buy future service, help servers, reward service and gain or keep social esteem," he wrote in a 2016 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology, "and that it is constrained by a dislike of the power and status inequalities it fosters."

"The good etiquette advice is, if you're ever uncertain, ask."

It should be a bottom line no-brainer that we tip for professions where one's income is largely based on gratuities, like table servers. But even then, the protocol is not clearcut.

"There are studies that I did years ago where I asked people, 'How much is it customary to tip waiters and waitresses in this country?'" said Lynn. "I was shocked to learn that only about two thirds of the people at that time would give me an answer in the 15 to 20% range. That norm has increased since then, but back then it was a very clear answer. The normative tip is 15 to 20%. That's what you were expected. That's what all the etiquette books said. If you were to look it up online, that's the answer you'd get. And yet 30% of the country didn't know that. That's still the most surprising thing I've discovered, in all of my research on tipping. What I thought was super well known was in fact not as well known as people thought."

Lynn acknowledged that social norms do dictate who we tip, but those norms and the motivations behind them are often ambiguous.

"The good etiquette advice is, if you're ever uncertain, ask," said Post Senning. "There's nothing inappropriate, embarrassing or awkward about asking about gratuities or tipping, whether people accept them, what usual amounts are."

"The bigger etiquette advice is that if you're using your questioning about tipping as a way to assess and evaluate your own behavior, you're probably going to reach better outcomes," he added. "If you're trying to judge or assess other people's behavior, it's less likely to be functional or useful for you."

So why do we tip? Is it quid pro quo, a bargain for better future service? Then why do we reflexively tip cab drivers and parking valets? And when we do tip someone we have an established relationship with, that can get sticky, because nobody wants a tip that looks like a bribe.

"Giving money can be perceived as trying to win favor."

"If I wanted to tip my child's camp counselor, I would first find out if the company or organization will allow them to accept tips, and what is the standard tip," said etiquette expert and coach Jacqueline Whitmore. "Instead of a monetary tip, I would think it would be more appropriate to give a small gift from the child. Maybe something handmade."

I asked her to elaborate on the line between a gift and a tip.

"I used to be a camp counselor at a Disney resort many years ago," she explained. "If the counselors had been allowed to accept tips, we might have treated certain children differently, based on what their parents paid us. A gift is a nice gesture — or perhaps a gift card — but this is generally not a standard practice. Giving money can be perceived as trying to win favor."

My friend Jill in Philadelphia, whose daughter is 10, has a similar mindset.

"I think it's good to give counselors end of season gifts, much like you would give a teacher," she said.

Yet my friend Julie in Denver recalled that she used to tip her kids' counselors during their camp years, adding, "I always tip ski instructors."

At the day camp where my teenage daughter works, as well as the artsy one in a bougie Manhattan neighborhood she and her sister attended and then worked in for years, it's customary for parents to give counselors an end of session tip.

"At our day camp, it was common for our counselors to get tipped at the end of the week or the end of the summer," said my neighbor Galina, who for several years ran a local day camp and afterschool program.

It's a gesture inherently tangled up in class and power.

I've handed out $20 bills to plenty of sunburned adolescents over the years, until it was my children's turn to start receiving them. I learned the ritual that very first summer with my firstborn, when the August air was still heavy but the Target was suddenly full of pens and protractors. I had asked around about what we were supposed to do, exactly, for the counselors. The head of the camp had tactfully told me that tipping was not expected and other mothers had told me that yes, it was. I arrived at the amount of $20 per counselor perhaps as arbitrarily as the boy's father had arrived at $5.

"No, should I feel retroactively bad?" my San Francisco friend Emma asked when I inquired if she's ever tipped her children's camp counselors. "But isn't NYC big on tipping everyone, though? Doormen, supers, garbage collectors?"

Melanie Abrams, an Oakland parent of two (and co-author, with Larry Smith, of the forthcoming "The Joy of Cannabis: 75 Ways to Amplify Your Life Through the Science and Magic of Cannabis"), seemed to concur with that theory, suggesting that camp tipping is "an old school, East coast thing."

But my old school, East coast friend Rob, the father of a 10-year-old son, had another theory.

"I think of it as either a middle-class thing to do (rewarding hard work by giving away your own hard-earned money) or a Richy Rich thing to do," he said.

As an anxiety-driven, middle-class, compulsive over-tipper, I feel that one in my soul.

Yet I also concede, especially on the days when I feel like taking out a loan to buy laundry detergent, that it sometimes feels like there's an assumption of tipping now attached to every interaction. But if you likewise are feeling squeezed by those new "Add a tip?" prompts where none used to exist, Olsen said that in those circumstances, "You don't have to tip."

But, he added, those who want can go for it. "Maybe you're just someone that's been frustrated that minimum wage hasn't changed in 30 years, and you just genuinely think people should be paid more. Here's this really easy way to contribute in a meaningful way right now, instead of having to wait for a policy change."

Tipping brings up everything that's uncomfortable in our American cultural relationship with money. It's an open acknowledgment of the transactional nature of a relationship, and the precise value of it. It's a gesture inherently tangled up in class and power. I think that's why it wasn't the tipping itself that had seemed so odd about the money the boy's father had given my daughter. It was the enigmatic five dollarness of it. Enough to say, "I am giving you a reward for your work over the past six weeks," yet with a sum that barely covers the cost of a Snapple.

My daughter tucked the five dollars into her wallet with the rest of her cash. She kept the note, too.

"It's a cycle of good when someone is grateful," said Post Senning. "Someone thanks someone and someone receives that well and feels appreciated."

And so however puzzling the boy's father's gesture had been, I can't deny that it still hit its mark.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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