When my husband and I traveled around Southeast Asia and India last year, one of our main guiding principles was: “Leave everything a little better than you found it.”
We put a lot of research into making ethical choices. But one area that proved to be surprisingly difficult to navigate was how to interact with children. They were everywhere, some selling things or asking for money, and others just curious about a foreign face or looking to practice English.
Here are my top five dos and don’ts for interacting with children in the developing world.
Each country is unique and you need to do your own research to decide what’s best. This list offers general best practices informed by my personal experience, talking with nonprofit professionals and locals in the communities I visited.
DON’T give money to children
You will see children begging on the streets of many cities around the world. Don’t give them money.
Even more often, you will see children selling handicrafts or posing for photographs in traditional costumes for a fee.
Don’t do business with them.
We learned this when visiting the Angkor temples in Siem Riep, Cambodia. Kids were selling bracelets and postcards outside almost every temple. Our guide asked us not to buy anything from the little merchants. He said parents often take their children out of school when they see that foreigners cannot refuse to buy trinkets from little boys and girls.
It’s hard, but refusing is the right thing to do. The only thing that can help those boys and girls long-term is education.
DO support programs for youth in training
Poor children in the developing world don’t have many opportunities for a better future. One of these opportunities—sometimes the only one—is getting work in the tourism trade.
Various nonprofit organizations provide the training young people need to become cooks, servers, hotel workers or tour guides. For example, the KOTO restaurants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, train disadvantaged teens to work in the food service industry.
Look through your guidebook or online to see if there is a similar program in the city you a visiting.
DON’T give sweets or presents to children
If you are visiting a rural, relatively untouristed community, you may find yourself surrounded by a group of friendly, curious, giggling kids. That’s why some well-meaning travelers carry treats to give out to children or even small presents like pens and notebooks.
This practice does more harm than good because it encourages children to beg and expect handouts.
Interacting with children is a fun and rewarding experience for everyone involved. You can do it ethically. For example, talk with kids who strike up conversations with you. This will allow them to practice English and learn more about the world.
Keep your distance and be respectful, though. Treat them like you would treat your neighbor’s child back home.
DON’T go on orphanage tours
Some tour operators in developing countries offer trips to orphanages and opportunities to “volunteer for a day” under the pretext of helping the orphans. As the nonprofit ChildSafe International explains, an orphanage is a child’s home. Hordes of strangers passing through every day do not help; they traumatize children.
In addition, tour operators typically don’t conduct background checks and can’t protect children from predators.
Even if all you want to do is help, remember that children’s lives are not tourist attractions.
DO support small businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve children
The best thing you can do to improve the lives of children in the country you are visiting is patronize small, local-owned businesses. Your support can help lift families out of poverty.
If you want to help more, find a reputable nonprofit organization and donate money or find out what else is needed.
Short-term voluntourism opportunities that involve working directly with children should raise red flags. Still, it’s best to treat everything on a case-by-case basis. Vetting charities in the developing world is difficult, but your guidebook and online forums are good places to start.
Though different countries in the developing world have different challenges, many share one problem: It’s frighteningly easy to hurt a child.
Don’t become part of the problem, even unwittingly.
This may sound like a lot to think about for someone who just wants to have a fun trip. But in reality, it’s as common-sense as keeping a close eye on your valuables while traveling in the developing world.
One of the reasons you are going on a trip is to understand the world and to make connections with people. A few tips and a little research will help you do right by those people and have a great time.
All photos taken by Marat Garafutdinov with permission from the subjects and their guardians.