Care and Feeding

Do We Have to Tip Our Kids’ Camp Counselors?

A woman handing a $100 bill to a smiling camp counselor.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I send our boys to a pretty expensive summer camp. It’s a great camp! To me, it’s worth every penny, and we have been lucky to be able to afford it (more on that in a sec). At the end of every summer, the camp sends out an email with tipping guidelines—suggestions for how much you should tip your counselors and swim instructors and other camp staffers. We’ve always followed these guidelines, but this year we find ourselves in a tough financial spot (a much worse one than we were in when we originally enrolled the boys in this camp). So I’m wondering: Would we be horrible people if we just didn’t tip? On the one hand, we have already paid this camp many thousands of dollars, and it would be great not to spend more. On the other hand, the counselors themselves probably see very little of that tuition money, tipping them is the norm, the additional $500 or so in tips is not going to bankrupt us, and this is what we get for choosing a pricey camp. What do you think?

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—Tip of The Iceberg?

Dear TotI,

Wow. I have to say this is the very first time I, a Californian parent, have heard of tipping camp counselors. I suspect this will be the same for many of our readers. It appears to be, at least for the time being, a phenomenon limited to parts of New York and New Jersey. I have to say I don’t love the idea. Camp is expensive enough, and tipping is often used as a way for employers to cheap out on paying a livable wage, instead passing the responsibility on to the people who are already paying full price for the service.

But you did not come here to endure my curmudgeonly ranting about this. Despite my issues with the shady capitalist practices that underlie tipping, I believe in tipping wholeheartedly. Refusing to tip just makes you an asshole, and even if you’re standing on principle rather than being a cheapskate, your principle does little to help the actual hardworking people who rely on tips to pay their rent. So if tipping is the norm—and judging by the camp’s guidelines, it is—then you should tip.

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However, the question you pose isn’t should you tip, but rather would you be horrible people if you didn’t tip. The answer to that, I’m afraid, is very much conditional. If you don’t have the money, then no, you’re not horrible. Not having the money does not make you horrible. But, dear friend, if the money simply did not exist there would be no need for you to write me, now would there? You have the money, but you are deciding if you can get away with not using it for this particular cause. And if that’s the case, then yeah, not tipping is kind of a dick move. Granted, your situation is a little bit different in that there seems to have been a slight fall from your financial station occurring in the time period between signing up and the end of camp. But you have to be honest with yourself: If there is any way you can afford to tip, even if it hurts, then please do.

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If you simply cannot, then honesty is the best policy. It may be embarrassing, but you can always say, clearly: “We’ve fallen on some difficult times and wish we could give you more, but this is all we can afford.” And do, at that point, hand over a tip that you are comfortable with. There is no shame in that, either.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband punishes me and my children by walking out of the house with no explanation of where he’s going or when he’ll be back. He usually does this after he comes home in the evening, if the house is messy and/or the children are fighting. Sometimes he’ll be gone for the entire night. This causes my kids a great deal of emotional distress. My older son worries that his dad won’t come home, and sometimes sleeps with my husband’s pillow for comfort. My younger daughter spends hours crying “I want Daddy.” My older daughter seethes and avoids her dad after he comes home. My youngest makes French toast in the morning in the hope that it will make Dad happy again.

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My husband justifies his behavior by saying that a messy house and kids who are fighting cause him stress, and he has a right to relieve his stress by leaving and finding solitude somewhere else. He deals with arguments the same way—when we disagree, he’ll often just leave in the middle of the argument or go to bed, and the next day just pretend like there was never a disagreement rather than continuing to work toward a resolution.

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I feel like this is really unhealthy behavior and particularly bad for my children. On the other hand, I feel like I’m responsible because with four very messy children and a full-time job, I have a really hard time keeping the house clean, and I should be doing more to provide a calming environment for him to come home to. He seems to think since I work at home that my job shouldn’t stand in the way of a tidy house. In the most recent incident, I decided to take my kids out for a fun day on the last Friday before the school year instead of cleaning the house, and we all got punished for that decision. Am I just being a bad wife and mother, or am I right that my husband needs to find healthier ways (for everyone) of dealing with his stress? How do I even broach this subject with someone whose best strategy for coping with disagreements is to leave the house?

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—Punished Emotionally

Dear PE,

Let us begin with your very first sentence. Any time you find yourself saying “My ____________ punishes me” and you’re not a teenager who has broken curfew, then there is a significant problem. Adults should not punish other adults. Period. Adults should not discipline other adults, especially in what is supposed to be a loving relationship among equals, and adults most certainly should not respond to their own pain by inflicting pain on the person closest to them. The fact that your husband’s respond to a “messy house and kids who are fighting” is anything other than cleaning his house and dealing with his kids tells me everything I need to know about this man. I don’t care what other redeeming qualities he may or may not have; this is not the picture of a kind or loving relationship.

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At the very minimum, your husband requires some serious therapy in order to get to the root of why he takes the objective reality of life with kids so personally, and why he feels the need to hurt people around him because of it. You have to ask yourself how realistic you think it is that he will be willing to look at his behavior and make the changes that are so desperately needed here. Going a step further, it is hard for me not to see this as a pretty cut-and-dried case of emotional abuse. I understand that leaving a marriage with kids is intensely difficult, and I do think it’s easy for outsiders to underestimate how seriously that decision should be taken, but it seems clear to me that this current situation is so far from ideal that if he does not change pretty drastically, then something else must.

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So, to answer the questions you have posed: No. You are not a bad mother or wife just because the house is messy. It is not the mother’s job to keep the house clean. It is something that a couple should work on together and for which they must both take equal responsibility, because they both live there. Also, prioritizing either your job or fun times with your kids over cleanup is not only not wrong, it is exactly right. Kudos to you for not, in this case at least, letting your husband’s shitty behavior trickle down to your kids. You chose to spend some fun time with them rather than locking them in a room with a TV while you try desperately to please someone who does not sound like he deserves the effort you are giving to him.

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But perhaps what I find most heartbreaking here is that this behavior is, in fact, incredibly damaging to your children. Not only are they being forced to live in a state of permanent vigilance, but they are learning that in order to feel safe they must try to control and manage the behavior and emotions of loved ones. This is a textbook recipe for co-dependency and unhealthy relationships. No good at all can come of this.

If I were in your position, I would talk to friends, parents, siblings, and other people who are emotionally supportive of me. I would be very, very honest with them about what I’m experiencing in my home and marriage, even going so far as admitting things I hadn’t previously admitted. Do not let fear of making either him or yourself look bad be a barrier to absolute honesty. It’s been my experience that abuse thrives in darkness, and often we are reluctant to bring light into a situation when we feel like things are our fault. This is not your fault. Do not make this mistake.

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Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My family and I recently moved to a new city. We found an affordable (!) day care that we like and enrolled our 12-month-old. She was great at her old day care, but I expected a rough first week or two as she got used to the new people and new space.

However, this is Week 4 and she continues to cling as tight as she can to whichever parent is dropping her off, acting as if we are leaving her to be torn apart by demons when we disentangle ourselves and leave the room. At pickup, we are greeted with accusatory cries of betrayal as soon as she sees us enter.

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How long will this go on? Will she ever have a peaceful transition? Did I botch her first day by staying with her for a little while before I left? Should I have stayed there longer? Is she permanently associating the day care with emotional pain? Of note, she happily and independently explores and plays in every other environment and is a very social kid.

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Please help!

—Have I Done Irrevocable Harm?

Dear HIDIR,

I don’t know if you’ve done irrevocable harm, and I don’t think that’s even a helpful way to look at it. (Aren’t we parents always kind of doing irrevocable harm?) But four weeks of consistent crying both at pickup and drop-off is definitely an issue beyond the normal adjustment period. Typically, my advice is to pry the kid off of your leg and go about your business, serene in the assurance that you’ve done the right thing. However, this feels different to me.

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What does the staff say? Is your child having adjustment problems throughout the day, or is it just at pickup and drop-off? I would also talk to other parents to see if they’ve had similar problems. It’s possible that it’s just that your child is having trouble adjusting, but it’s also just as possible that there is something uncomfortable about the day care that is presenting an issue larger than just your child.

Assuming that this is all in good shape, I would focus on reading books about day care with my kid. Titles like The Kissing Hand and Llama Llama Misses Mama address this question gently. I would use these reading sessions as an opportunity to let my kid talk about anything difficult that is happening at day care. It may be that she has something she wants to talk about, but doesn’t know the right way or time, and sharing others’ stories can be a good way to get that started. Obviously, at 12 months there is not much she can say, but you can watch her and see if it seems as though she is looking for the words to express something and help her with finding them.

I would also think about using a transitional object, as well as pictures of her family. Things like this can be useful in helping a child adjust. But for me, all that comes after you’ve become fairly certain that there isn’t something happening at the school that she is afraid of. It is a very difficult situation, and my heart is with you. Good luck.

—Carvell

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