How to explain the heartbreaking sight of child beggars to your kids

“Amma, Amma.”
“No, go away.”
“Amma.” Gestures to her mouth and stomach.
“I said no.”
“Amma, give no Amma.” Hand-to-mouth gestures repeat.


Green light. Traffic moves. The child in rags scuttles away, squeezing between slow-moving vehicles to get to the road divider, where she squats to await the next red light. You heave a sigh of relief, but oh no. It’s not over yet.

“Why was that little girl asking you for money, Amma?”
“Because she doesn’t have any money, kanna.”
“Then why didn’t you give her money?”
“Because asking someone for money is wrong.”
“But if she doesn’t have money, why shouldn’t she ask others for it? How will she eat?”

Uff. Exactly how are you going to answer that question satisfactorily? Your kids have seen you and/or your spouse work very hard to provide a living for them, so they aren’t exposed to poverty or accustomed to asking other adults for what they don’t have. So the first time they’re old enough to understand a begging encounter, they’re going to have a lot of questions about it. When they do, how should you handle them?

Nameeta Kustagi, a managing consultant at SAP Mobility, a startup in Bangalore, was confronted with exactly this dilemma when her twin boys first noticed a beggar at a traffic signal. Their initial reaction was one of shock. “They had a lot of questions,” she recalls. “‘Who are these people? What do they want? Why are they asking from others?’” Nameeta did not want to encourage a negative mindset towards beggars right at the start of her children’s perceptive lives. So she tried telling them that some people don’t have everything they need like the rest of us do, which is why they have to ask others for money.

“But they were not convinced, and their response was, ‘We should not ask anything from others, we should work ourselves,’” she says.

How to explain the heartbreaking sight of child beggars to your kids Nameeta Kustagi with her six-year-old twins Adarsh and Aditya Shiaggaon

A mature response from two six-year-olds, don’t you think? Perhaps, though, we underestimate the comprehension abilities of children when it comes to complex and sensitive matters such as this. For instance, stay-at-home mum Chaithra Sriram’s daughter Harshadha began asking questions that bordered on the philosophical the when they came across a child begging. “What is money? Why do we need it,” asked the five-year old. She was scared too, Chaithra says, which also brought questions like, “Don’t they have parents?”

“Initially, I had no idea how to respond,” admits Chaithra. “I realised being honest is the only way and I tried explaining in bits and pieces about what begging is and why we see beggars around us. I also tried to explain that it’s not good to beg.”

Nameeta, however, took longer to speak her mind with Adarsh and Aditya. She waited until she felt like her boys could understand viewpoints other than their own before she spoke of how she felt that a person should work with whatever capabilities they had. “I would not like to help a person who is physically and mentally fit.” Begging, she told them, was taking the easy way out.

Her explanation brings us to the question of how you decide whether someone is physically or mentally fit to work. It’s easier to understand the physical aspect. If someone is very young or old (or differently abled), you could place them within that bracket and help them, as Nameeta, Adarsh and Aditya decided they would do. But child labour, after all, is banned. Will you consider child begging a form of work that parents are trying to exact out of their kids by not providing for them, and hence shoo them away? Or will you take pity, give them money and, in the process, encourage them to believe that begging is acceptable?

“My heart melts,” exclaims Chaithra, when asked this question. “I get quite upset with their parents. A couple of times, I have tried asking kids if they are willing to go to school and where they stay, but they’re very close mouthed about it.” This, she says, is what scares her the most. She tries to take the middle ground of not giving them money but of providing for them in some other manner. “Most of my daughter’s toys I have handed over to them. I try to help them as much as I can to get them out of begging on streets.”

How to explain the heartbreaking sight of child beggars to your kids
Chaithra Sriram with her five-year-old girl Harshadha Sriram

When you sternly refuse to help a child or a very bedraggled and tired adult on the street, you have to be careful not to give your kids the impression that you’re deliberately being cruel. You’re treading a very fine line when you try to teach them the difference between compassion and principle. The key, it seems, is to show them other ways of being kind to the people around them.

“I am not really sure if the stuff I am teaching them will make them compassionate or kind,” says Nameeta, “but these are some things I drill into them: never laugh when their friends fall, instead help them. Never use harsh words. Give away stuff that you don't use, be it clothes, shoes, toys.”

That seems like a sound policy. “But I have a selfish reason as well here,” Nameeta laughs aside. “Having twins makes all things double at home. This policy removes the clutter too.”

Taking away from what she does, here’s what you, as a parent in a privileged position, could do help kid beggars and demonstrate kindness to your own children:

  • Keep goodies in your car/handbag: 

Make sure this is bigger than a one-rupee Eclairs, so that when you hand these out to the kids who come begging to your window, it serves both as a treat and to fill their stomachs with it. Cookies or rusks are a good choice.

  • Try enrolling one of them in the local school:

Chaithra did say that it’s hard to get these street kids to talk. But if one of them is on your regular route, you could take the chance to get better acquainted with them every time they ask you for money. Eventually, you might be able to aid them with a little schooling.

  • Offer to buy them a full meal once in a while:

You usually don’t have time to stop and take a child to the closest fast food joint, or the money to do it everyday. Once a week or once a month, though, it’ll be nice if you set aside a few rupees and minutes just for this.

Doing one or all of these will ensure that your own kids see you helping those in need, without involving money directly in the process. Every now and then, you could even get them to perform these actions. They’re smart; they’ll learn.