Last Updated on January 28, 2023 by Audrey Scott
You care about the kids you encounter while traveling, right? Are children ever props in your photos? Do you location tag them? What about giving money to begging children? What about passing out gifts to random kids you meet? What about those school visits? How does it all impact children and their well-being? Can any of your actions cause unintended harm?
A recent release of a set of child welfare in travel guidelines and code of conduct seems to be tipping the apple cart. What many of us thought were perfectly acceptable behaviors when we encounter kids while traveling are now called into question.
My first thought-hope: “I bet when I read these, I’ll find out I never really did anything wrong.”
I read them. Wrong.
My mind ran to a school visit Dan and I made in Namibia several years back. The visit, a stop along a bicycle trek in the desert, involved a group of us – not only travelers, but leaders of industry attending a conference also known for advocating sustainable tourism issues – dropping in on a local school, meeting the kids, disrupting class so the kids went outside, and taking a bunch of photos.
How could something that felt typical and innocent at the time now be considered detrimental to the well-being of those children?
Then I felt a bit defensive. “Wait, what’s so wrong about visiting some kids at school? It did some good…didn't it?” If I’m being honest, there was something in me that always wondered, “Would we do this kind of thing at home? Why not?”
The Child Welfare in Travel Guidelines and Traveller Code of Conduct go straight to that point, among others. Guidelines addressing taking photos of and with children and posting to social media made me wince – not so much at the guidelines but how they intersected with some of my own previous behavior.
Until now, most discussion of child welfare and protection in the travel industry has tended to child trafficking or sexual and physical abuse by travelers. These new guidelines, however, go to the heart of ordinary interactions that travelers (independent and on tours) have with children. And they raise the question: if we are concerned about the welfare of the children we come in contact with on the road, what should we really be doing…and avoiding?
Should we give money to begging children? How about giving gifts to kids? School visits? Are children props in our photos? What about location-tagged photographs of individual kids? Most of the noted behaviors and their effects — ones many of us haven’t thought too deeply abut until now — fall into the land of unintended consequences.
Finally, I admit feeling a bit sheepish. After all, I’m an advocate for responsible travel, sustainable tourism, mindful travel, respectful travel, humanity…respect. “How could I have missed this? Shouldn’t I have known?”
We’re human. That also means, in the spirit of travel, we can take in new information and adopt to a new perspective. We can evolve, change and improve.
And we will.
Table of Contents
Child Welfare Guidelines: Background and Organizations Involved
We are writing this article in light of the recent release of Child Welfare in the Travel Industry: Guidelines and Good Global Practices and the Child Welfare Traveller Code of Conduct published by G Adventures, Planeterra Foundation and ChildSafe Movement. As part of this process, G Adventures became the first ChildSafe Certified tour operator ensuring that all its operations comply with these child welfare guidelines.
The goal of these freely available guidelines, as explained by Adrienne Lee, Director of Development at Planeterra Foundation, is “to ensure the industry and its clients never create unintended harm to children, their families and their communities through any visit or interaction.”
While the guidelines mainly target the travel industry — and how companies can ensure their operations, services and products support child welfare – there is also a Traveller Code of Conduct that any traveler can follow to ensure that their behaviors adhere to these best practices.
The Guidelines and Code of Conduct — measures and principles vetted by international organizations such as UNICEF, UNWTO, ECPAT International, The Code, Save the Children, and the Global Alliance for Children — are free. Any travel company or traveler can read, adopt and apply them to their own operations or daily behaviors.
You can download the Child Welfare Guidelines and Traveller Code of Conduct here. We also encourage you to sign the pledge on that same page that shows your commitment to child welfare when you travel .
Child Welfare in Travel: The Ultimate Thought Experiment
If you’re having trouble making sense of all this, here’s a thought experiment. If you’re a parent, imagine one of your children. If you don’t have children, imagine a child or young person who means a lot to you. Now, when you consider interactions and situations with local children you encounter during your travels, ask yourself:
“Would I do the same thing with a child in my own country? Would I want a traveler to do this with my own child? Would it be OK if a traveler just walked up and did this with my family, my friends’ children, or my neighbors?”
If your answer is no, the rest follows.
If your answer is yes, consider the local socio-economic and cultural context of the places you visit. There may be factors at work there — e.g., extreme poverty, the role of girls and women in society, etc. — that can turn what at first may appear a harmless action into something loaded with unintended and unseen negative consequences.
The 10 Do’s and Don'ts of Child Welfare in Travel
Here are some of the more common circumstances and contexts where travelers may find themselves interacting with children during their trips abroad.
While these suggestions apply everywhere, you may find some of them particularly resonant in your travels to destinations in developing or transitional economies — what some refer to as the Global South.
1) DON’T: Give to begging children or buy from child vendors
It’s really hard to say no sometimes. We discuss extensively in this article how giving money, candy, toys or even school supplies to begging children may contribute to a host of unintended negative consequences. This includes parents forcing their children into begging, then keeping their children from school because their begging earns more in the short-term than studying. In addition, children may place themselves in precarious and harmful situations in order to beg, or they may be beaten up by others for the money or gifts they've received.
In short, your contribution may contribute to a continued cycle of poverty, dependency and violence.
Similarly, if a child earns money selling candy or postcards during school hours then his parents may choose not to send him to school at all. That may sound harsh, but in some parts of the world, these are the difficult decisions parents feel forced to make daily.
What to do: Donate to child-friendly or education-focused organizations which help keep children in school and offer varied support for their well-being. Support can include providing nutritious meals, school supplies, uniforms, after-school tutoring, and even parental counseling on the importance of education to a child's future.
See #9 below for more suggestions on how to find reputable organizations and the most effective ways to give.
2) DON’T: Treat local children as a tourist attraction or use them as photo props
In Cambodia earlier this year, I saw two young European women eating breakfast at their beachside guest house. A young, adorable Cambodian girl of around two or three wandered through the garden to their table and looked up at them, apparently for some food.
One of the women picked up the girl, sat her on her lap and put her arms around her. Then she handed her smartphone to her friend and asked her to take photos of them. A photo session ensued. Afterwards, they put the girl down, gave her a cookie and motioned for her to go away.
This is what we mean by using children as an attraction or prop. There have been some great spoofs and humorous campaigns about this, including Barbie Savior and a Radi-Aid video related to its social media posting guidelines.
What to do: Engage as human beings — without the pay-off of images and fodder for your social media account. Interact, play a game together. Do so first with a mind to what is good for the young person in front of you, not what will play well on your social media feed.
3) DON’T: Visit schools or educational facilities during school hours
Classroom visits on the road can be a blast. You play some games, practice some English as a foreign language, or watch a performance.
And the photos are often fun and speak to optimism and education.
The unfortunate reality: these visits usually disrupt the education process. Worse yet, when they occur frequently, these visits actually constitute a strange form of child labor and performance.
As much fun as it is for both the traveler and children to go into a classroom to play some games, practice a few words of English or a foreign language, or perhaps watch a performance, the reality is that these visits are a distraction. If the visits occur regularly (e.g., a tour company brings groups daily or multiple times a week), a simple visit to you or me represents continual disruption in a learning environment where teachers already struggle to keep children’s attention in an over-stuffed classroom.
We’ve been guilty of this. Sometimes our school visits were connected to community-development related projects or trips. At the time, we and the organizers believed our actions were beneficial to all parties.
Now we’re more aware. And unless a visit is somehow absolutely essential to the business at hand, we are almost certain to decline it, or wait until classes are over and the formal school day is finished.
What to do: Visit children’s centers or organizations after the active teaching part of the day is over. Support local schools and organizations financially or through deliberate in-kind donations to address specific needs (see #9 below for advice on how to do this).
4) DON’T: Volunteer at or visit orphanages
We discuss this in detail in our voluntourism and volunteering article. Research and studies have shown a relationship between demand to volunteer at or visit orphanages and a demand for more orphans, often including children who aren’t actual orphans. You might be surprised to hear that an estimated 80% of children in these orphanages have at least one living parent.
In some locations, this has contributed to broken family trend as poor, disadvantaged parents give their children to “recruiting” orphanages. Studies show children do best when kept with their families. In that vein, the focus of everyone’s behavior ought to be to keep families together by supporting a system which encourages parents to do so.
Additionally, short-term volunteering at orphanages raises the issue of inadequate training and repetitive abandonment syndrome, where the constant cycle of attachment and detachment can take a psychological toll on orphaned children. For more information on the potential risks stemming from volunteering at orphanages, check out this infographic.
We also suggest you watch The Love You Give short documentary with stories told of how volunteering in orphanages can unintentionally break up families and other negative impacts. This is produced by Better Care Network which is part of a coalition called ReThink Orphanages, a leader in this cause. It's eye opening and real.
What to do: Legitimate orphanages and long-term care residences do exist around the world. Consider donating money or making a targeted in-kind donation to these organizations.
Look also to organizations that work with disadvantaged families and support them emotionally and financially so their family clients remain together.
5) DON’T: Photograph children and tag their location or identity
Photographing children, especially excited school kids just released from school, can be a fun, worthwhile experience for everyone. Setting aside your best intentions to photograph a child and share her dignity, beauty, joy, culture, etc., it’s important to be aware of some of the risks that come along with that image depending on where and how you post and share it.
If you post or upload a photo of the child, do not tag the location or identity in a way that makes the subject easy to locate and thus vulnerable to human trafficking.
Yes, it’s a thing.
Sadly, there are bad folks out there who perform searches and scan social media to find subjects that are attractive, vulnerable or both. As travelers and users of photo sharing sites and social media, we ought to ensure that our actions, however well intentioned, do not inadvertently aid those with bad intentions.
For example, don’t take a selfie with your subject looking straight into the camera and post it to Instagram with the exact location. Keep that photo for yourself, for your memories. Instead, consider posting an image with the child turned slightly so as to not reveal her identity. Be vague regarding the specific location where the image was taken.
Finally, avoid any nudity or anything remotely revealing.
What to do:
- Ask permission in advance of taking any photographs and respect your subject’s privacy. They are human, after all.
- If the child is young, ask permission from a parent instead. Don’t take the photograph if the child or the parent is at all uncomfortable.
- Avoid taking photographs when kids ask for money; it echoes the issues related to begging (item #1, above).
- Aim to take photographs of children in a group vs. as individuals. Better still, photograph a child together with one or both parents, or with the entire family.
- Take photographs of children which demonstrate their dignity and spirit, rather than those which highlight poverty and the difficulty of their living conditions.
Remember #2: children are not photo props to get more likes or attention on your latest social media post.
Note: We admit that after selecting images for a photography exhibition highlighting child welfare in travel we realized in retrospect that we need to perform an audit of our entire photo gallery. Our intent when first taking those photographs was good. Despite those intentions, our awareness has expanded. It's clear that some of our images could be misinterpreted or used in ways we’d never imagined.
6) DON’T: Impose yourself or initiate physical contact
It’s tempting and natural to reach out and pick up a child that you meet during your travels. Resist that urge until the child initiates contact first. And if he’s not interested in engaging with you – for whatever reason — let it go and move on.
Never impose yourself or your wishes on a child. Let the child decide if he wishes to engage, and how. Better still, find ways to engage with the child when he is together with a parent or his family.
On the flip side, we’ve found ourselves in situations with children crawling all over us, grabbing at us and our pockets — almost as if they’d been trained to “touch the foreigner.” It’s difficult to say why – perhaps they thought that was what we wanted, perhaps their intentions were less innocent.
No matter the reason, if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation involving children, politely and firmly say no to the child (and to parent or sponsoring organization) and disengage or leave entirely.
7) DO: Report suspicious behavior or possible abuse
If you observe activity in and around a hotel or bar that even hints at child trafficking, mind your intuition. If you’re in this context and you see a child who appears uncomfortable or looks as if something is wrong, then it’s time to act on your informed instinct, take action and report the behavior.
Sure, the situation may be completely innocent. Inquiry will bear that out. But when physical and/or sexual abuse might be at play, the potential risk and damage to a child is too great not to act.
Don’t confront the situation or the potential perpetrator — be it a traveler or local — head-on. Don’t ask the child directly, either, as this may place her in a more difficult, dangerous or compromised position.
Instead, report the behavior immediately. If you are on a tour, let your local guide know. Otherwise, contact the local authorities or local child helpline. ChildSafe lists these hotlines and organizations in countries around the world, as does The Code. Listen to the advice of authorities on what to do next.
8) DO: Be creative and engage respectfully
When something we considered good, wholesome fun is called into question, it’s tempting to feel as if all avenues of joy have been closed off and to respond by throwing in the towel.
Don’t put up a wall up between you and the children you meet on your trip.
There are heaps of ways to engage in fun with local kids that works for everyone. Play a game (football on the local pitch is one is our all-time favorites), engage parents and families together in a photo-taking session, get to know people’s names and stories, or learn a new word or two in a foreign language.
Don’t be afraid to ask your tour operator, tour guide, or other local people what passes for culturally and socially appropriate in the destination you are visiting.
The upshot: communicate and treat children and young people with respect, just as you would at home with family, friends and neighbors.
9) DO: Support reputable child-friendly organizations
Informed donations may feel impersonal, but they offer some of the most appropriate and effective ways to contribute, give back to and interact with the communities we visit.
If you donate money, give it to the organization directly rather than through intermediaries or middlemen — children or otherwise — collecting money on local streets. Along the way, don’t ever be afraid to ask tough questions about operations, program administration and how contributions will be used or spent.
If you wish to provide supplies or make an in-kind donation, ask the organization what it really needs, rather than acting on your assumption of what you think it needs.
Consider buying supplies locally, rather than bringing them from home, so as to further support the local economy. When you purchase goods locally, you’ll also reduce the risk of your donation – clothes, school supplies, shoes, etc. – drawing the recipient undue attention and resentment from others because it is foreign or special.
Where to find such organizations?
- Before you travel, perform your research and vet organizations by checking multiple sources.
- Ask your network of family or friends if they're aware of any organizations that might fit.
- If you are traveling with a tour company, ask them for recommendations.
- On the ground, ask your local guide. Inquire also at local hotels, restaurants or tour companies which express a legitimate community focus.
- Here is a good article with practical recommendations on how to help disadvantaged children abroad.
10) DO: Ask questions and demand more from the travel industry on the topic of child welfare
As it happens with any advocacy or movement, the more we educate ourselves, ask questions and demand target behaviors from the companies we do business with, the more the travel industry as a whole must respond and up its game.
We’ve seen this play out in issues across the industry, including with environmental issues such as the reduction of single-use plastic bottles, animal welfare issues like elephant riding, and cultural sensitivity issues involving respectful travel interactions with indigenous populations and communities.
When we asked Ms. Lee of the Planeterra Foundation for three things that travel-related businesses can do now connected to child welfare, she suggested the following for travel companies:
- Throughout their operations, remove practices like orphanage visits and non-educational classroom visits from itineraries.
- In their human resource practices, ensure that there are no forms of child labor. Ensure staff are trained on how to respond to critical issues.
- In their marketing and sales practices, avoid using images of children without parental or guardian consent, and avoid using children as promotional features of tours.
Note to travelers: If you don’t know where to begin when evaluating companies’ approaches to child welfare, start with these three items. The ChildSafe Movement also provides a list of child safe businesses.
The Future of Child Welfare in Travel
This chapter in the ongoing movement of child welfare is not about closing doors of travel experience and human interaction.
Instead, it’s about opening ourselves and adapting creative approaches to connecting with children that balances our desire to relate with the needs and rights of the communities we visit.
This is all a bit of a mindset shift. It doesn’t happen overnight, either. It takes root through expanding awareness and a desire to act. It’s a process and conversation, one driven by travelers just like you who continually re-imagine their place in the world, travel with the idea that it can be a force for good, and hold the travel industry accountable along the way.