it’s the most dreaded time of the year…

Sorry I’m a little tardy writing this week. It’s because this week was the much-dreaded, all-consuming, last week of summer camp. In other words, it’s camp tipping season.

I didn’t know there was such a thing until last year, when I found out the day before camp ended (thank God). Though I was a camp counselor for five summers and never received a tuppence for my pains, this is apparently a non-optional part of modern camping, like chipping in for your kid’s gym teacher’s Christmas gift is mandatory during the school year.

Here’s my problem with this. No guidance is given, at all, because it’s deemed a “discretionary” matter. But if you had no idea you were supposed to do this in the first place, then how can your discretion possibly be correct? (And make no mistake: there are many ways to do this wrong. It’s up to you to ascertain what is expected of you, as a mom of the 21st century.)

These are excerpts from the ostensibly helpful letter that came home in my boys’ lunchboxes:

“Although there is no official policy for tipping at ______ Camp, it has become an established tradition.”

Read: Although we’re not going to tell you you have to do this– since we can’t– if you don’t tip, you’ll be a colossal jerk.

“It is not obligatory in any way, but our counselors are greatly appreciative…”

Again: do what you want, a-hole, but you’d better pony up, is all they’re saying.

OK, so I got the message. In my case, it was not-at-all-totally-mandatory for me to tip EIGHTEEN PEOPLE (ten for the 3-year-old’s room, eight for the 4-year-old’s). Fine. How much am I supposed to tip them, sirs? I kept reading:

“Many of you have asked for guidelines for tipping. Our best advice is that whatever feels reasonable to you is entirely appropriate.”

Well, thanks. for. NOTHING. Whatever seems right to me? What seems right to me is that you pay these counselors enough, out of the outrageous sum I already handed over for the summer, so that this non-obligatory-obligation didn’t exist. Barring that, what seems right to me is that you just TELL ME what I’m supposed to tip each of these kids so that I don’t seem like a tightwad, and they won’t hold it against my next child-to-be when he/she is a camper four summers from now.

This is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night. After several days of internal deliberation, and desperate Googling for advice, I came up with the round sum of $20 each. On the one hand, that hardly seems like enough for the 30-plus days they took care of my kids. On the other hand, with eighteen counselors to tip– many of them “senior counselors,” whom I was advised to “consider proportionately,” I was looking at shelling out almost $500. I cannot say that seemed reasonable to me whatsoever.

And there wasn’t anyone for me to ask. I don’t really know any of the other parents; summer camp was not the friend-making experience, at least for me, that I had envisioned. And the few who did say hello to me, I didn’t feel like I knew well enough to ask. It felt gauche to have to ask. It felt gauche to not just know these things.

In the end, I went with $20 for the regular counselors, and $40 for the grand pooh-bahs, and broke out into a cold sweat as I watched my older son hand out his lovingly lettered thank-you notes/ blood money to each of his teen caretakers. I still have no idea if I did the right thing. I’m haunted by the PS in the letter the camp sent:

“Counselors in our youngest groups, the Belugas and the Sea Robins…”

(that’s my kids’ groups)

“…work particularly hard and have to pay extra supervisory attention to their campers. Please don’t overlook them in your tipping.”

In other words, even if you do tip, there’s a chance that they’re still going to feel overlooked. There’s still a chance you screwed up, big-time. In fact, those counselors are sitting around right now making voodoo dolls of you instead of cleaning up the tie-dye supplies, like they’re supposed to.

I’m doomed.

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