Please stop giving pens to children in India

Giving pens to children in India is a big no no for foreign tourists. Though it may seem an innocent act of goodwill, it has some long-lasting repercussions. Here’s why you should stop giving pens to children in India, and some alternative ways to give to children in the country.

 

It’s pretty much a fact: this child is the most adorable child in the world.

Big brown eyes, a blindingly white smile, little school uniform so perfectly pressed. Their tiny feet pound the ground as they run toward you, their backpack flapping on their back haphazardly. Other children, noticing you, begin to congregate around your legs. As they look up at you, heads just barely coming up to your belly, you can’t help but smile yourself. You’re about to experience the “real” India all those guidebooks talk about.

Schoolgirl in Hampi, India - Lost With Purpose

… then it begins.

“Pen?”

“What is your name? Give me pen!”

“No pen? Give me money!”

Like a flock of noisy seagulls, a high-pitched chorus of demands rises from the throng, and what started out as a emotional moment has ended with you being treated as a human vending machine.

GIF of seagulls from Finding Nemo

PEN! PEN! PEN!

 

Though many foreign tourists don't realize it, giving pens to children in India is a big no no! Click through to learn why it's such a bad move, and find some alternative ways to give to children in India.

Resist and desist!

It’s a common scene throughout India and other developing countries. Big-hearted (or deep-pocketed) foreign tourists come in, encounter The Most Adorable Children Ever living in less-than-ideal conditions, and heartstrings are tugged. The tourists buy them pens, candy, some cheap toys. The children are delighted, the tourists feel like saints, everybody wins, right?

Wrong. Though intentions may be good, the repercussions are not:

  • Children will expect foreigners to hand out free goods to them. There’s another word for this: begging. Are you comfortable encouraging begging?
  • If begging is incentivized, children may drop out of school in favor of taking to the streets and collecting goods from foreigners.
  • Scams emerge where children ask tourists to buy them goods, then return the goods to the shop in exchange for a profit.
  • “Begging mafias” might recruit the children to work for them.

Put your parenting hat on

“Oh, you’re so cold hearted,” you might be thinking, “a pen is just a little gift. Besides, they need it!”

Not convinced, eh? Let’s try another approach: imagine you’re a parent. If your child walked up to you and demanded you give them something, would you give in?

What if, when you denied their demand, they then insist you give them money?

… I’m thinking the answer is something along the lines of “Aww hell naw.” If you wouldn’t give in then, why would you do the same to children on the street?

 

Children in a rickshaw in Alleppey, India - Lost With Purpose

They’re pretty freaking adorable, but that doesn’t mean you should spoil them!

What you can do instead of giving pens to children in India

I’m not saying you should turn into a miser and lock your heart away forever. It’s okay to want to help out people in need—just make sure you do so responsibly. Here’s a 5 alternatives to handing out pens and other donations to kids on the street:

1. Buy school supplies from a local convenience store and give them to a teacher.

This kills several birds with one stone:

  • You contribute to the local economy by buying the pens locally.
  • This ensures donations end up in the right hands, and prevents children from squabbling over who gets what.
  • School supplies cannot be as easily misused as cash donations.
  • You ultimately get to give kids pens. Wins all around!

2. Have a mini-photoshoot.

Kids in India (and everywhere else in the world, except perhaps Afghanistan) love to ham it up for the camera. If you have a digital camera, ask if you can take their photo—the answer will definitely be yes—and snap away! Show them the photos you take, and you’re sure to be rewarded with all kinds of giggles, squeals, and demands to take more photos. Just make sure to say no to requests for money for the photos.

Children posing on the street in Samarkand, Uzbekistan - Lost With Purpose

This tactic works everywhere. Take these kids in Uzbekistan, for example—what started out as asking for money turned into a full on street shoot!

If you want to take it to the next level, consider getting an instant camera for those really special kids. Photos can be expensive, and many families don’t have the money or resources to have photos taken of themselves. An instant photo is a nice gift that can be cherished much more than a pen… and they’re more fun!

Tip: Try to only do this when the family is around, or when there aren’t too many children. Otherwise it may lead to some bickering about who gets to keep the photo(s) in the end!

3. Take some time to talk or teach a special high five or game.

Children might be interested in material objects, but you have something much more valuable to offer them: a chance to exercise language skills! Most are delighted to do so, and hand games and high fives are something that can easily be explained in basic English and can be used amongst themselves for days to come.

Children on the street in Hampi, India - Lost With Purpose

At first encounter, these kids thought “bye” meant “hi” and vice versa. By the time we left, we helped them figure out the right order. Small victories!

4. Go on a responsible tour that benefits the children’s community

Being a good tourist is in right now (let’s hope it’s never passé), and tour operators have been listening. “Responsible” tours ensure local communities benefit by distributing proceeds among the communities they operate in, crafting itineraries with local leaders, properly disposing of waste, etc.

Visit.org is an excellent resource for finding responsible tours. If you’re looking for tours whose profits specifically benefit children, I recommend:

  • New Delhi Walking Tour – Run by the Salaam Balak Trust, which provides education, shelter, and medical help to street children in Delhi.
  • Mumbai Immersion Tour – Run by the Gabriel Project Mumbai, which improves the welfare of street children by providing nutrition, medical assistance, education, and more.
  • Live Like a Local in the Blue Mountains – Run by the Rural Development Organization, which works to improve education, sanitation, and health in vulnerable rural communities throughout India.

 

School children in an auto rickshaw in Alleppey, India - Lost With Purpose

It’s impossible to resist these faces, we know!

5. Donate to an NGO or charity that works with children in India.

Sometimes, we need to accept that we have no freakin’ clue what’s best for people. And that’s okay.

There are hundreds of charities and NGOs that work to improve living conditions and education for children in India. They know what’s up, to say the least, and giving money to them can be much more effective (and efficient) than figuring out what to do yourself.

It’s important, however, to donate to organizations that have proven to be effective. To save you some time, here are several reputable Indian organizations you can donate to:

  • Seva Mandir works to improve the lives of people—including children—in rural Rajasthan. This includes providing quality education and proper child care.
  • Smile Foundation has a variety of aims, one of which is to provide proper education and nutrition for children in school.
  • Chirag is working to improve the quality of education and general welfare of young students in the Kumaun region of Uttarakhand.
  • Akshaya Patra combats malnutrition by providing mid-day meals to more than 1.7 million school children every day.
  • Aarohi has a youth program that goes beyond the classroom and promotes extracurriculars like sports, trekking, and just playing outside—all essential to ensure kids stay away from crime and drugs.

Go forth, and be responsible!

So ends my sermon. I know not everyone will agree with me (woe is me, I have failed), and there are other alternatives I haven’t touched upon. That’s where you come in!

What’s your opinion on the subject? Do you give to children and beggars?

If you do, why? If not, what have you done to give back to communities in a responsible way?

 

Though many foreign tourists don't realize it, giving pens to children in India is a big no no! Click through to learn why it's such a bad move, and find some alternative ways to give to children in India.

 

Yay transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which mean if you book or buy something through the link we’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Never fear, we thoroughly researched everything presented here, and we’re not such terrible people that we’d write about responsible tourism and then irresponsibly recommend things. Please.

 

Alex

American by birth, citizen of nowhere in particular by nature. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

37 thoughts on “Please stop giving pens to children in India

    I do agree with you! This is an excellent post and I can tell you have thought about how to word and structure your case in order to get your message across as people may think you aren’t being fair. As a traveller, we do have a responsibility to not mess with culture and, as sad as it may sound, giving gifts directly to children is messing with it – I have seen this first hand. It’s so sad to hear a child demanding sweets or pens because they have grown used to receiving gifts even though it’s completely understandable that foreigners want to help – I totally get that! I think your suggestions however are brilliant so thank you for having the courage to write this post and provide sustainable alternatives, I applaud you!

    Thanks! We don’t view it as courageous, just trying to do our part to promote responsible travel 🙂 It’s a bit disconcerting how many people we’ve met, both local and foreign, that don’t see the dangers of freebie handouts.

    But, of course, it might just be a matter of opinion, so a bit of discourse via this post is also an aim!

    The Sandy Feet says:

    Great article! I completely agree that as travellers we shouldn’t be dolling out things (or money) left, right and centre, even if their sweet little faces make us feel oh so guilty and cold-hearted. It’s a short-term fix that could have life long implications.

    Word. People need to start thinking about the long term, rather than looking for the instant do-good gratification. But it’s admittedly hard sometimes when all those teeny adorable kids have got you surrounded!

    This was well done, thank you! I’m always looking for ways to help people more long term than just giving them money when I pass by. I’m still working on my willpower when surrounded by those cuties though <3 As a teacher, I totally agree with and appreciate the suggestion to give them the supplies! How did I not think of that?! Lol

    It can be hard to say no, we know!

    Just be cautious when giving to teachers at schools. It’s hard to say how—though you’re a teacher yourself, so you should be able to get a feel for the class quickly—but you don’t want to give supplies to a conniving teacher that will just sell them off once you disappear, too. Food for thought!

    Jess Mizzi says:

    I’m so glad you mentioned the New Delhi Walking Tour with Salaam Balak Trust. I went on a tour with them and it was fabulous!

    Good to hear that you enjoyed it!

    Arzo Travels says:

    Oh, I understand that people are torn apart and thus I love your tips how to really help them. Pinned!

    Yep, most people mean well, they just need to be pointed in the right direction 🙂 Thanks for the pin!

    Ellie Cleary says:

    Great post Alex and thank you for writing about this! I find the same goes for buying/giving food – so often we want to help but sadly it has exactly the opposite consequence and we make things worse. Thanks for bringing a solution based approach with plenty of things we CAN do!!

    I’d rather buy food than give money or objects, but you’re right, it does have the same effect in the end.

    Brittany Hemming says:

    Alex, amazing post! Thank you so much for taking the time to not only point out the problem with giving money/pens/gifts to children but providing actionable solutions that can be done instead! This is great 🙂 keep doing your thing!!

    Cheers Brittany! Options for solutions are what help to drive change, not aimless rants. I do my best!

    Kristine AARSHEIM says:

    Thank you for sharing this amazing post and all your knowledge! It’s easy to fall into these traps while traveling, and it’s good to know there’s always something else one can do that will actually be a win win for everybody, without having to worry if you’re being scammed or causing harm 🙂

    Thankya Kristine 🙂 There’s often a solution, but the line of thought to get there isn’t always the most clear.

    Dorothee Baur says:

    Great post! I usually don’t give pennies/anyhting else to children, but at the same time feel bad about not ding anything…Thanks for sharing some suggestions on what to do instead 🙂

    Even knowing what we do, we still often feel bad about saying no to them. Just gotta keep the bigger picture in mind, and choose a more responsible approach!

    Sally says:

    Thank you for this. When my sister and I were traveling around Nepal & India we had kids following us continuously asking for pens. I never really thought about the detrimental consequences of that until reading your article. Yes it does promote begging! Thanks for providing alternative options! You are truly a thinking traveler:)

    Never fear, I went many a year without really thinking about the consequences, too. But the more I travel, the more I see, and the more I realize some common practices are really quite harmful to communities. I think it’s our responsibility as visitors to a country to ensure we have a positive impact, not negative.

    FullSuitcase says:

    This reminded me of our trip to India many many years ago. We were there with the group and many people were prepared for this since they brought toys and school supplies from home in order to hand them out to the children. I had very mixed feelings about it back then, I still do now. It’s good that you try to raise awareness and show people that there are much better alternatives!

    I saw that in Africa… It was almost like watching people feeding birds or fish, just tossing things out the window and watching kids snap them up. Definitely uncomfortable!

    Practical Wanderlust says:

    I don’t understand …. pens are necessary for scchool. If you don’t want kids to drop out of school to beg, don’t give them money. But giving them supplies they need for school? That helps them stay in school! Personally I believe if you’re travelling somewhere, you have privalege, and with privalege comes and obligation to give and do good. This is why I try to give to beggars whenever I’m able. I don’t really care if a child in a developing nation is acting in a way that we could call spoiled for a privaleged first world child. That child isn’t spoiled. It isn’t the same behavior as a kid who has no problem getting pens or school supplies demanding something they want, rather than need. These kids need pens. It’s not something superfluous. It’s not candy or money or toys. It’s a school supply!! They’re not spoiled for asking for a necessary item for school from a privaleged traveler.

    The kids need pens, but that doesn’t mean you are the one that should give them the pens. Like I said, giving freely encourages begging, which actually encourages them to LEAVE school as begging is more lucrative in the short term. Families and mafias also play a big part in encouraging children to roam the streets and beg for a profit.

    Sure, foreign tourists are more privileged, but that doesn’t mean you have an obligation to provide for random children on the street. Children shouldn’t be dependent on foreigners for their school supplies, it’s as simple as that. Instead, use your financial privilege to give back in one of the more responsible ways I listed in the article.

    Sara Bernard says:

    I have to agree with the article, I don’t think you are JUST talking about pens, but even so, there are so many ways to get schools improved so that kids stay interested and have great quality that could lead them out of the vicious cycle they might live in. Another option is to volunteer, I know it is a difficult topic and I agree with you that we don’t know what others need so don’t try to be something you’re not just because you have some education, volunteer in something that you can actually do! That way you’ll sure help and share with others with the same interests. It is not only about raising money, giving material things but also to teach some skills to locals that can actually benefit in the long run. Thanks for sharing

    Thanks for this comment. Pens is just a general example, because it is asked for the most. We do think that volunteering your time is a much better way of helping. Do make sure that you have actual skills to volunteer though. Voluntourism can do as much harm as it can do good. Raising money for reputable organizations in an excellent way of volunteering your time, we think.

    Sara Bernard says:

    A year back I encourage volunteering as I find it could be a great way to help & learn what it is really needed. Then I talked to people, read articles and realised that people just sign up for any volunteering program not even knowing what they are doing. I never ever meant that!!! I mean I have no clue of what it is needed to drill a well hens I couldn’t volunteer/work there! For me this makes sense, it is logical, I’m not a doctor so I wouldn’t go trying to be a doctor in any hospital (I don’t think anyone sane would do that either) why would I do that in a developing country???! But for some reason there is people who think that is acceptable. Volunteering (knowing what you are doing of course) could be the most enriching experience for both parties, but if you don’t have the time, the skills or the will then there are other ways to have an impact in a community.

    Agree 100%. That’s what we meant to in our first reply to your comment. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re doing more harm than good. Let’s hope more people will start realizing that.

    An interesting perspective, and a really good reminder to those of us who think we are doing good by giving out candy and treats. Thanks for pointing out the other side.

    Thank you. It’s important that people think about the (unintended) consequences of their actions. Too often this doesn’t seem to happen.

    Bart Laurijssens says:

    Hmmm…I don’t agree fully… Ofcourse, after a while, the children will see tourists only as walking money or material benefits, but like you suggested….take pitures and let them see them…Street children can’t fill their stomach with that. Sponsor the local projects. Many projects are good, but still too many children not allowed to school because of no money… It’s not because you give the teacher or school some money or material, that they will accept streetchildren! It’s more complicated than that! If u like pictures, then give them some clothes, or let them eat your leftover food on the terrace where u are eating… But i understand your way of thinking. But don’t get coldhearted by ignoring them. Everyone has to do, what his heart says to do… Then the world will become better…

    This is the problem. You think that not giving is cold-hearted, and that children here have no choice. In some cases that might be true, but public elementary schools, though often bad, are free here. So not sending your children to school is always a choice.

    Giving anything to begging children perpetuates the problem, as it teaches people that begging is profitable, more profitable than schooling in the short term. This in turns leads to more children begging, and foregoing education. By giving things to beggars, you are helping to create a never ending cycle of begging and reward. Now THAT is cold-hearted!

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