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.


In that moment, the 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.

… then it begins.


“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


Resist and desist

It’s a common scene throughout India, as well as other 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. Why go to school when you can profit on the streets?
  • 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. Children are often maimed as a way of making them more pitiable, and thus profitable.

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 someone else’s children on the street?

Boys in Assam, India

Photoshoot time! (With consent from their parents to both take photos and put them online.)

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 are 5 alternatives to giving pen to children in India:

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 everywhere in the world 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.

Even better: let them take some photos, too! Just make sure they’re gentle with your camera or phone.

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.

Children playing in Assam, India

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.

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.

One example is the New Delhi Walking Tour. Run by the Salaam Balak Trust, it provides education, shelter, and medical help to street children in Delhi.

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?


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.

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Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

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

    FeetDoTravel says:

    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!

    Everywhere To Be Found says:

    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.

    Rhonda Albom says:

    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!

    James says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your post. Unfortunately I’ve encountered educated, wealthy parents who will encourage their children to ask for “toffee” or money. Bollywood pictures perpetuate this by portraying white people as incredibly wealthy, careless with their money, and daft.
    The one exception to your rule is with food. If a child tells me they are hungry I will make sure they have the opportunity to eat something. Hunger is an immediate need and social reform is a slow process. If I feed a person, I choose healthy food that they can eat immediately. Buying uncooked foods or an abundance of one type of fruit does little to help.
    Also, a child asking for money on their way home from school is one thing, but if you see a child who needs help, do not be afraid to call Childline (1098).

    Niall says:

    Great post! At first, I was a little skeptical but you offer really wonderful alternatives. The thought of giving away so much that people give up their education is extremely worrying.

    soultree says:

    Brilliant ! Beautifully put. I’m about to take a group to India and was wondering how to explain this subject, which is SO complicated. I go to India regularly and have had my heartstrings pulled many a time, and yes I have given money – and pens – in the past… But have long felt there’s something wrong with that and so have found a couple of ONGs and schools I trust, so I now know where the money’s going. It’s still really hard to say no to a child in the street, but I know why I’m doing it. I do still buy a chaï or banana if I’m having one and someone asks… is this bad ??
    Thank you so much for helping me explain this to my group – and to myself !
    ps like the idea of an instant camera 🙂

    Alex says:

    I’m glad this could clarify things a bit! Yes, it’s a very complex issue, and definitely not an easy topic to explain while people have dozens of adorable young eyes staring up at them. I’m also a bit overly cautious with buying food on the spot—I feel like it’s fundamentally not so different from giving money, and can also be exploited—but something I see others doing in India that I can get behind is to pack up all of your leftovers from restaurants (inevitable when dining in big groups!) and give them to the homeless/beggars outside.

    Anyway, safe travels in India, and good luck with your tour!

    epostpro says:

    As usually I found your post interesting and very informative.I will recommend your blog to my friends .Thanks for sharing with us.And keep up the good work.

    laalana says:

    You are so cool! I dont suppose I have read anything like this before. So nice to find any individual
    with some authentic ideas on this subject. Realy thank you for beginning this up. This website is
    something that is wanted on the internet, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing
    one thing new to the internet!

    isabelle says:

    So hard when children are involved ! We were in Tavan (Sapa) this summer and disturbed by all the children running after every new tourist in town to sell them things. My daughters were heartbroken to say no and not buy anything from them. I kept telling the children that they should play, not sell (we’ve been told that they don’t during schoolyear, hopefully it’s true), and at one point I got from my luggage bubbles to blow together. We spend 30 minutes maybe playing with them, and laughting. I felt it was the right attitude to have. Still wonder and hope it was… (I did give them the bubbles! – but they had not asked for it)

    Trish says:

    I’ve not had the pleasure of traveling enough to experience this situation so I likened it to the kids lining the streets for a parade waiting for candy to be tossed from the firemen, boyscouts, the local ball all-star team and town mayor. It’s cute and all, but once in a while, somewhere, a small town newspaper headline reports someone was hit during parade. If you read the article, by the end you’ll wonder if that someone wasn’t pushed, a good article anyway. My point is that begging doesn’t sound discouraged by the influential adults in these childens’ lives. Is there a program in place to educate the adults on the lasting effects of allowing and encouraging this behavior?

    Lianne Racioppo says:

    Excellent article and so true. As a Canadian family, we have worked many years in india at The Rising Star Outreach in Chennai that splits its focus between vaccinations of lepers in the leper colony, (my mom is a vaccination nurse), supplying micro loans to the lepers to get them independent and self-sustaining–NO MORE BEGGING!–and then educating their children to be skilled, contributing members of society with potential college-level opportunities and Tamil/English fluency (much of this the life-long work of American Becky Douglas). Leprosy doesn’t carry over to the children through birth, FYI.

    We have one mandate that is unbreakable: NO FREE HANDOUTS.

    It has been painful to transition this mind-set for everyone (us and them) as sometimes we feel ‘mean’, some of us may have been tempted to bend the rules, after all, they’re lepers! or, we want to feel like the fairy godmother, but having stuck to this at the insistence of our Indian partners, the success has been evident.

    A quick illustrative story and what we did about it:

    One day in this kindergarden, the teacher gathered the children together to draw with crayons. A little boy (we’ll call him Dev) picked up a crayon and then would break it. The teacher would give him another, and he broke that one too. The teacher asked why he was breaking the crayons and he replied, “It’s doesn’t matter, the Americans will give us more.”

    O-KAY. That was a revelation.

    This is what was created out of that revelation.

    The ‘Star’ Store:
    All pens, crayons and ‘frills’ like stickers etc, and all gifts sent to children by sponsors will go to the ‘Star’ Store, set up like a little convenience store. There, these items can be purchased by the children using their accumulated ‘stars’. The children earn these ‘stars’ in one of 5 ways and they can earn up to 5 stars a day for the following: making their bed, doing homework, help tidying up the dormitories, a good or kind deed to a fellow student or individual, and being helpful in the classroom.
    They go ‘shopping’ at the end of the week with their ‘stars’ to the Star Store. Like money, a child can buy 2 lollipops for 1 star or a beautiful donated pen for a 1 star, or they can save their ‘stars’ for something more significant like a small glittery pencil case or makeup purse for 15 stars, or a donated volleyball for 40 stars.

    This model has also eliminated jealousy and bitterness that some ‘lucky kids’ have sponsors who send gifts meanwhile other kids without sponsors (or gifting sponsors) go without. This levels the field and makes everything accessible based on the child’s work/behaviour ethic. It must be earned.

    The success with this idea has been outstanding, and these kids are now teaching their parents about the value and rewards of work!!

    Nothing of value is appreciated if it is acquired for free. The feeling of effort, motivation, and ‘I can do this!’ is the best payout there is.

    shru says:

    Most of the points you make are very agreeable. However, the photograph section made me feel a little uncomfortable. There is an expectation in western society that any child’s photo should only be taken so long as an adult/caretaker provides permission. Although, this specific moment of a child begging for a pen doesn’t fit the conventional “asking for consent” situation it is important to disclose our own intentions for taking those. I am assuming that the photos you have included in this wonderful blog were consented with knowledge of its use and impact. There is no greater harm than saying no to child exploits through begging and alternately showcasing that child’s photo on the internet associated to poverty and begging. It is definitely a thought to think about not exclusively for blog writers but every other tourist who asks for “permission” from a kid or their parents without disclosing the intentions of their use for socials/websites.

    Thank you for pointing that out. I also cringed when I came back to this after seeing your comment in my inbox—I’ve learned a lot about ethical photography since writing this back in 2016! Ahh! You’re right, it could be damaging to include their photo alongside comments about begging. I’ve replaced the specific photo in question and removed ones directly associated to begging, and changed the other photos to less direct ones or photos that I had explicit consent to use online.

    Shelbs says:

    This was such a good article!!! I had no idea that begging was such a big deal in India. I’ll definitely be keeping these tips in mind when we travel there.

    avisek kumar says:

    This was such a good article!!!

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