Almost Fearless

The Moral Dilemma of Street Kids

Guatemala, Central america, street kids, poverty, travelsI spent a few days in Panajachel Guatemala. It’s the common launching point for tourists wanting to explore Lake Atitlan and the 12 small villages that surround it. As such, it’s also the stomping grounds of hundreds of street peddlers, all trying to exchange your quetzales for a braided bracelet or carved knickknacks or baked goods. In Panajachel, most of the wandering salespeople are kids under 10 years old.

Should you buy something from them?

For about 10 cents American, you can get a bracelet, the kind I used to make when I was 12 and back then we called them “friendship bracelets”. For 1 dollar American you can get a scarf. For 5 dollars American you can get a hand woven rug or a sculpture of a dolphin.

But how much would it cost to get the kids off the street and into a school?

I know it’s very boring to think about these things, but we all know the answer is bigger than what we could possibly attempt in a 2 day trip to the lake. It’s institutionalized under-education of children, especially those coming from indigenous families. But still, even if you do nothing, you’re still making a choice. Do you support a system that supports families by employing their adorable underage children as street peddlers? Or do you turn your back and hope that the lack of sales will encourage the parents to give up and send their kids to school instead? Sadly, the first is enabling and the second is naïve.

The best I could come up with? I won’t buy their stuff, but I will buy them something to drink or give them some of my food (if I’m eating). It’s small consolation for the eldest child (at 7 years old) of 6 siblings, where the father has left and the grandmother brings the kids to the market each day while the mom stays at home with the ones too little to insist to strangers, “Compralo!” (Buy it!)

But it changes the dynamic a bit, when I respond with, “No voy a comparlo pero quisieras una bebida? (I’m not going to buy it but would you like a drink?). Maybe this tiny gesture will mean something. For me it means chatting happily with cheerful youths who are always a little surprised when I make a joke, but then start telling me about their brothers and whether they can swim and what’s their favorite animal. Perhaps it’s just panacea for my guilt, but I like to think that by acknowledging them, treating them like somebody’s kids is at least a small first step.

So I’m curious, how do you handle the inevitable conflict as you travel and can’t help everyone? And since we can assume there is no right way to handle it, have you seen any creative ways to work around this?

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • You can’t tell these children ‘no’, they’re trained (for want of a better word) to persist. But what I think is important, is if you are saying no, don’t say NO! Remember your p’s and q’s and the effect you’ll have on their later life. You can’t give to everyone. I remember a time in Lhasa when I was asked for money by three or four children, I didn’t give them any but I returned to the monastery the next day with a small toy for each of them. Needless to say, I didn’t see the other eighteen round the corner and me and my gang of do-gooders soon had a dilemma on our hands and a flood of tears! While on the subject – I applaud the Nepalese kid who asked “school pen, school pen?”, I shrugged and told him I didn’t have any and he ran off into the distance. Five minutes later he was back “which colour? red? blue? black?”. I laughed, he laughed and I bought myself a “school pen”. How could I not?!

    Ant´s last blog post..Lynch of the Grinch

  • This is an issue of real importance to me, and to travelers in general. There are so many variables that push kids out to the streets- institutionalized poverty (at the hands of governments, including my own), lack of educational oversight (to make sure kids are in schools), among other factors.

    I think that if you’re rolling through a town for a couple of days, the solution you’ve come up with is a good one. But if you’re going to be in a place longer, there are lots of other ways to become meaningfully engaged in helping gets get educated and skilled so they don’t have to go out to the streets. That’s what we’re trying to do with a group of 9th grade kids in Colombia: teaching them photography, writing, and videography skills so that they can develop tangible skills, get exposure at home and abroad, and–hopefully-create opportunities, eventually, for them to to exchanges and college studies.

    Julie´s last blog post..Being a Customer Shouldn’t Be Hard

  • After going through similar rounds of searching for the right response when a four year old looks up at me earnestly with a pile of postcards for $1, I’ve ended up in a similar place as you. I say that I don’t give money to children, but I’ll offer a drink, bag of peanuts, soup, samosas, etc., and try to start conversation. I know this doesn’t solve the root problem, but it’s the best response I’ve found.

    Another idea is to visit a local organization working with street kids and donate your time, schoolbooks/pencils or money.

    Audrey´s last blog post..Two Years On, What Have We Learned?

  • Christine –

    In college, I studied abroad in Kathmandu for 4 months, spending a significant amount of time in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district – home to Himalayan Java, my favorite coffee shop/Internet cafe/bookstore. The street kids in Thamel are known to be (backpacking on Ant’s term) persistent and aggressive, and while temporary tourists may be able to shrug them off, seeing the same kids day in and day out, well, it was too frustrating to ignore. The choice you talk about plagued me every day. To give? To ignore? To yell?

    Even after being told by my academic director to ignore the kids (because they use money to buy and sniff glue), I tried a range of responses. You’re right, unless you plan on tackling the root social/economic/political issues, I think that offering food and drink is the appropriate way to go.

    Well said. I’d like to see more posts about issues of morality whilst traveling. What other decisions do you have to make?

    Alan´s last blog post..Winter survey assignment

  • There is a difference between giving kids money (don’t), candy (never), and buying something from them (depends). If a child is selling a product it’s likely part of a family business. They send the kids out because it’s much more likely that a tourist will buy from a nice kid with a smile than a parent. In most cases, it helps the family and is worthwhile. I prefer not to support child labor, but in many of these countries they’ll be working regardless. Selling bracelets might be the easiest work they’ll do

    Gennaro @ Enduring Wanderlust´s last blog post..3 Perfect Places To Befriend A Buddhist Monk

  • This is a situation that I think about even at home. The majority of homeless people begging on American streets have addictions. Giving them money helps feed their addictions. I can’t stand the thought of ignoring people who need help so I volunteer at a homeless shelter. This has shown me meaningful ways to help struggling people wherever they are. Giving food or drink is good (and they’re still called friendship bracelets!) but what I do on my trips if I know there will be child beggars, is bring books in their native language or supplies like pencils and crayons. It addresses the lack of education issue but it also makes them smile and feel acknowledged. I also try to volunteer at local organizations or schools if there’s time. It’s a huge, systematic problem all over the world but I think that each person really can make a difference.

    Fly Girl´s last blog post..Playing in the Clay

  • As Fly Girl mentioned, this is similar to the issue of what to do when a homeless person asks for money at home. I think the most important thing is to be prepared. Know what you want your response to be before you get asked. I try to carry around a voucher card for a supermarket, so if I get asked for money I can offer them that.

    Eric Daams´s last blog post..Solo Road Trip

  • The only compromise we’ve ever been able to find in our travels is to buy something off the kids so they can eat that day and then do a bit of Internet searching for a charity or other NGO that is doing work to get them into school. It is the best of a bad compromise…

  • Do you know, I’ve thought about this all weekend – it’s definitely a difficult problem. I have kids, I’ve traveled to places where young children were selling on the streets – with and without kids – and I grew up passing an encampment of homeless people daily walking to/from school.
    So, with all that, I think there is no right or wrong answer to this. Instead every traveler needs to decide how to handle this in a way which suits his or her own moral opinion. For me, I will probably buy their products since it scares me that no sales may mean that a child may not eat. But I also agree with your perspective of engaging with the child on a personal level also.
    A very interesting topic – thanks for bringing it up.

  • There’s no moral dilemma here … the kids trying to sell you a trinket will probably make something of themselves. Like it or not, this world is based mostly on capitalism; the earlier one learns that, the better one’s chances are of ‘succeeding’. Sad, yes. But it’s reality.

    You’re attempting to equate what happens in Pleasantville, USA to a city in Guatemala? Yer not talking apples to apples here. Kids in 90% of the planet don’t have a hope in hell of ever breaking outside their caste. School is probably useful and may lead to a way out, but selling trinkets on the street to tourists is faster way out. Besides, you’re fooling yourself if you believe buying them a notebook and a pen is getting them back in school.

    You wanna make a difference? Don’t buy them a meal. Not to fret, they’ll eat in Central/South America. It’s not the desert. School supplies? They’ll just sell ’em back to the place you bought them. Either give the kid a LOT of money (why not hand ’em $100 for their trinket?) or stay a while and run for office or consider becoming a teacher. ‘Dumbing down’ the population with constant soap operas, football and variety shows is something the third world does very well. Plenty of newspapers, but most are filled with who el Presidente’s wife is sleeping with. You run for office claiming you’re going to change that, or you become a teacher and raise people who can think for themselves and challenge the status quo.

    Buy their trinkets. In fact just pick your favourite and give them $100. They can keep the trinket.

    It’s cute to think your helping them by not buying their bracelets, but you’re not. It’s just a really a tad arrogant of you. You’re out traveling the world. 99.999% of Guatemalan’s can’t possibly even fathom leaving their own town.

  • @Chris G

    Well I’ve wondered the same things- does anything really work, but I think I’ve had a different experience in Guatemala. There are plenty of Guatemalans that travel, go to school and get university degrees. But I’ve think you’ve alluded to the class issue at hand– in Quetzaltenango there is a huge gap between the 50% of the population that is Mayan and the rest of the population.

    That’s not to say there isn’t work being done by Guatemalans and tourist/volunteers. The language school I studied at for a month, used it’s proceeds to fund a school for kids who wouldn’t get an education otherwise. In fact Guatemala is one of the best places to go if you want to be a volunteer, because there are so many NGO doing this kind of work.

    But that being said, I think there is more to education that “breaking out of their caste” as you said. Violence against women is a huge issue in these areas and the fact is that educated Guatemalans are less likely to purport or sustain this violence based on their level of education.

    So while I think your $100 idea is a novel one, I’m not willing to automatically dismiss the idea that all is hopeless. And I don’t think it’s arrogant by me or my readers to try to think these issues through. I don’t think anyone has the perfect answer (including yours, which I suspect was a little tongue in check– it’s unlikely even you take this advice), but I think it is worthwhile to discuss it. Because personally, I’m not willing to dismiss these kids as hopeless.

  • @Ant: That’s a great story, you have to laugh when they out maneuver you. I had a little boy trying to sell me clay mini-sculptures of animals. He would bring each one out and tell me the animal name (Tiger, Dog, Elephant and so on) but the thing is: They all looked exactly the same. Four legs, and a head. I was laughing so hard, and asking him, really? This is a monkey?

    @Julie: Once I get a home based, I plan on getting involved in the way you’ve described. I think the great thing about your group, is the personal relationships you’ve formed with them.

    @Alan: Thanks! I’ll see what I can come up with 🙂

    @Gennaro: Interesting point.

    Flygirl/ Eric: I like the school supplies idea.

    Travelgator: Excellent point

    TravelMom: I still think about it too. I like Travelgator’s idea of finding a NGO to donate to as you travel. I also was thinking that it probably depends on where you are or the specific child. In Mexico there were some really hungry kids– in fact that was pretty normal and if I offered them some food they would scarf it down. In Guatemala the kids seem to be much better fed, so maybe there it’s more about additional income for the family instead of earning your daily meal. Still, you’re right, there’s no perfect solution, but I think it is important to discuss.

  • Christine … is the person who responded back to me the same person who writes this blog? Your blog is beautifully written, your response was grammatically painful.

    It appears as if you know most of your other respondents, correct? I’m sure they’re simply agreeing with everything you say. Never once did I say all was “Hopeless”. Did you actually read my response? My response was intelligent and well thought out.

    “Thinking these issues though”? Your ideas and the majority of your reader’s responses won’t make one iota of difference to a street kid’s life. My suggestions – $100 donation, run for office and make change, become a teacher – these will make a difference. But for the tourist whisking through the country, other than the $100 donation, other ideas aren’t realistic. This is probably why the average standard of living has dropped in most Latin American countries over the last 10 years. This is also why inner-city USA is fast turning into a war zone. Nobody really cares, do they?

    “But now,” says the Once-ler,
    “Now that you’re here,
    the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
    UNLESS someone like you
    cares a whole awful lot,
    nothing is going to get better.
    It’s not.

    Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
    He lets something fall.
    “It’s a Truffula Seed.
    It’s the last one of all!
    You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
    And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
    Plant a new Truffula.Treat it with care.
    Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
    Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
    Then the Lorax
    and all of his friends
    may come back.”

  • @Chris G

    You may not have said that everything was “hopeless”, but you did say that “Kids in 90% of the planet don’t have a hope in hell of ever breaking outside their caste.”

    Sounds pretty hopeless to me.

    By the way, before attacking someone else’s grammar, perhaps you should review this sentence in your original post:

    “It’s cute to think your helping them by not buying their bracelets, but you’re not. It’s just a really a tad arrogant of you. ”

    Eric Daams´s last blog post..Why You Should Go On A Solo Road Trip

  • Eric: not being able to break out of their caste may appear to the casual observer to be hopeless, but to the kids selling their trinkets it’s simply a hapless circumstance.

    The grammar point? Touche … with an accent of course. 🙂

  • My Dad went to Egypt (my Arabic stepmom has tons of family there) and felt absolutely crushed when the family kept telling him not to give them money or give in to them in any way. Finally, it was too much for him to handle (they were there for two weeks) and he handed the child 50 Euro. Another kid ran up, punched the first kid in the face and stole the Euros. When the kid stood up, he wanted 50 Euro again. My Dad felt bad but didn’t have the money. So he handed the kid 100 Egyptian Pounds (about 16 Euro), still a lot of money for Egyptian underclass. The kid threw down the money and demanded the same as the thief. My Dad realizes he was being swindled and told the kid to get lost.
    .-= John ´s last blog ..SilverPhantom2: It’s the second night in a row of a raging all nighter… =-.

  • Please keep in mind that it costs money to send children to school who live in Panajachel and the surrounding villages. Most parents can’t afford it whether their kids are selling trinkets to tourists or not. If you really want to help and believe school is a good thing, sponsor a child or two for school. There are several NGOs that have school sponsorship programs. Mayan Families in Pana is a good one.

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