We Spoke to Parents Who Bring Their Children To Burning Man
As most of you have either experienced or been told a million times over, the Burning Man festival will change your life. While the reasons for this vary, they usually have some link to the fact that the festival, in a way, awards you with a week-long respite from boring-ass adulthood and lets you be a kid again. That’s why we’re curious about children at Burning Man.
For a week, nobody judges you (or at least it feels that way), you live your life in a perennial state of wonder (unless you’ve seen many enormous snake installations that are also on fire before), and you have no time restraints and no responsibilities, other than following the golden rule. Life’s focus is back on creativity and fun: costumes, gifting, face paint, improbable art, meditation, fancy restaurants, parties, workshops, TED talks, marathons, bubble baths, and airplane rides and much, much, much more.
One of the most significant differences is that your handy-dandy kindergarten degree is finally worth something, because most everyone at Burning Man is really, really good at sharing (unlike actual kindergarteners, those selfish bastards). Another significant thing we must mention, is that unlike most happy childhoods, this new version is surrounded by sex and drugs.
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(To be clear, you can go the entire week at Burning Man and not be exposed to sexuality or substances. If you want either (or both) you usually have to search; however, once you do, they are real easy to find).
Add the fact that amidst your own personal childlike rediscovery there are actual children wandering around, and it all becomes a bit more confusing. Yes, many parents take their children to Burning Man, in fact, Burning Man has many facilities dedicated to children, such as the aptly named Kidsville and guides on how to do it. Yes, there are quite a few children at Burning Man.
If Burning Man equals childhood plus sex/drugs, what in the world is it like to actually be a child, there? If Burning Man is a life changing experience, what happens when it’s a recurring part of your formative years? If Burning Man can sometimes be a dangerous and unpredictable place (if only for its environment), why would you bring your kid there? And if people feel so much better after only a week there, why would you not?
Consequently, does going to Burning Man as a child change the person you become, and does it do so for better or for worse?
To get an overview of the situation we first spoke to a specialist with a degree in educational psychology. Sigrid hasn’t been to Burning Man herself, but has experienced similar events which also host families and children. We figured she’d be a perfect person to talk about children at Burning Man.
We asked whether she believes that Burning Man has the potential to cause significant changes in a child’s development, or whether she believes that the event would simply halt their adaptation to what’s not unusual, open, and playful. The answer, in fact, depends entirely on the child itself. “I think the marvel of the artwork has the capacity to amaze at any age,” Sigrid told us. “I don’t believe going to Burning Man would halt or hinder an already inherently creative child’s adaptation to the unusual.”
We also inquired about the elephant in the room, i.e. the drugs and the sex that most people who’ve never attended the festival immediately think of when visualizing Burning Man. In other words, do the psychological risks would outweigh the benefits? That is to say, is it more damaging to see the negative aspects than it is to be exposed to the positive elements?
“This all comes down to the parents,” Sigrid responded. “It depends on the age of the child, their parenting style and how open the communication within the family is. This brings me to issue of drug use at the festival. How would one explain this to a young child? While a three/four year old may not take much note of this an older child might. It’s easy to dance around the issue by dismissing a person having a good trip on MDMA as simply having the best time and being naturally high on life. But how does one explain the bad acid trips, the OD’s?”
The above questions deals with the exact stereotype that many people have about Burning Man. Michael, who has two teenage children and has been going to Burning Man for over ten years, actually deals with his children’s own preconceptions of this.
Michael made the decision to not bring his children to the festival. “As soon as the kids were old enough to know that I was camping out in the desert, they certainly wanted to come along – a natural request at the time, when they were probably around 6 or 7.”
He told us the biggest reason he didn’t want them to come with him was not the exposure to drugs and sex, but rather their health.
“I’ve experienced some prolonged dust storms out there and it just can’t be good for developing lungs. I also camp in a tent, which yields less protection from dust compared to a motor home.”
Additionally, when Michael was first faced with the decision of whether to bring his children to Burning Man or not, the event was a much less child-friendly festival. He told us that he thought the “funness” of the whole thing would wear off in just a few hours for his children, as there was a lot less going on out there a long time ago (such as Kidsville).
He told his children that at the age of 13 they would be allowed to join him. Fast forward to now…. “Incidentally, they don’t have any desire to go. Since they’ve become teens, they really don’t want to hang out with their parents. I also think that they’ve succumbed to some of the stereo types and stories that they have heard from me and others, generally around drugs and nudity.”
“I am hoping that it will come around full circle and they will eventually want to experience the event,” Michael added.
It started to become apparent that not only was the wild and celebratory environment at Burning Man not a deterrent for parents, but that in reality, parents who bring their children to Burning Man already raise their children in a creative and questioning environment. Because of this, Burning Man is more the norm than the exception, for them.
We spoke to three parents who do bring their children to Burning Man. Jaelee, Judi, and Joshua (I couldn’t have picked better matching names if I tried) have all previously been to Burning Man, and have been taking their respective children for a gambit ranging from 1 time to 9 times.
Why did you decide to bring your child to Burning Man? Was it a difficult decision? An easy decision?
JOSHUA: Originally, we didn’t want to take him until he was 4 or so. We thought that if he could say “I’m hungry/I’m hot/I’m thirsty/etc.” it would be possible to take him. We also didn’t want to take him while he was in diapers. BUT he ended up coming up to the playa with my wife, to see my big project The Gift Prolific in 2012 (he was 2.5 years old). At that time we didn’t really have any sort of childcare to watch him at home. They came up on Thursday and left on Sunday….diapers and all.
JUDI: Since Dexter was born, he was part of my life. I didn’t see the benefit of locking him away at home with a babysitter. He went everywhere with me, to work as an event coordinator and as a henna artist, even to a job interview which I did get. I chose to have only one child, which allowed me to be a good mom and still have my own life. I quickly mastered the art of bringing him along. It just took some extra preparation and organization. It was a very easy decision to bring him to Burning Man. He was 16-months his first year.
JAELEE: Marrow’s first year of Burning Man was last year. We decided to bring him with us because it’s something that we hold sacred and wanted to share it with him. Also, he tags along for everything we do, so we always told us that once he was old enough, he would come with. Since he was born, we only went to the Burn once without him; my parents watched him, but we missed him too much. It wasn’t a difficult decision for us: we always knew we were going to bring him, we just had to decide what age was safe.
What challenges did you face?
JUDI: The biggest challenges were day-to-day survival, like keeping him hydrated, out of the sun, safe and comfortable. We built our camp with that in mind, with shaded nap areas, shaded bike trailers and a large shaded living area. We also instilled a sense of responsibility in him, to be aware of his surroundings and his well-being. He’s sensitive to stimulation, so we also learned to take breaks to chill out. Most folks think the nudity and adult content would be challenging, but it never was. Kids are not born with negativity towards nudity; in fact, Burning Man is only public place that he got naked-time. As far as adult content, when Dexter saw something, he’d simply ask, “What that?” It gave me a chance to honestly explain things, on my terms. It’s created a strong mutual trust between us.
JAELEE: It wasn’t that challenging for us. Marrow is really easy to take care of. He was 5 last year when we went. The only real challenge was that we had to make sure he stayed sun screened. We camp with a bunch of people we consider family, so everyone just naturally looked out for him.
Would you like to bring him back?
JOSHUA: OH HELL YEAH! In 2013 it was just me and him. My wife had to stay home and work (she’s a teacher). It was an amazing father and son trip. Last year, however, we skipped and he was a little pissed at me. So I promised him that we will never skip a year again.
JUDI: I will absolutely take him again. He did skip a couple years by his own choice, when my husband and I split. It was his choice to return, so I’ll take him as long as he wants to go.
JAELEE: Yes! He’s going back with us this year. We actually weren’t planning on going, but he asked if we could and he never asks for anything, so we bought tickets.
Do you feel uncomfortable telling people about it?
JAELEE: I definitely don’t feel uncomfortable telling people about it, but that might be because I don’t care what people think. Also, I’ve only had positive reactions when people hear he went.
JUDI: I have no problem telling people. When we took him out of school (kindergarten) to go to Burning Man, I was a little worried. His teacher’s response was, “I’ve always wanted to go”. Then I knew we were doing the right thing. Now we wear it like a badge, literally. Dexter and I founded Black Rock Scouts [www.blackrockscouts.org/] a few years ago, a “playacational” (playa+educational) youth program for playa kids.
JOSHUA: No way. People are always surprised when you tell them about Kidsville. We didn’t camp there, but we made many a trips to the trampolines and lego tents. I usually tell people that you can find what you want to find at Burning Man, and you can avoid what you want to avoid. And seriously….naked people are just naked people.
If you do tell people, do you feel like you need to clarify anything?
JUDI: Occasionally people to challenge me on the safety of Burning Man for kids. My response it, “If you’re a good parent, then you don’t stop being a parent at Burning Man, right?” I feel much safer taking my son the the Playa than to Vegas or Disneyland. Living in Kidsville was great, it gave us a safe place to experience the Burn with other families. It’s been a good education for us both.
JOSHUA: I usually ask them why they wouldn’t take their kids.
What kind of things does your child say about Burning Man?
JOSHUA: He talks about it all the time, and so do I! We talk about the art a lot, like the art Cars that we got to ride on. We talk about all the gifts we gave and received, about how hot and tired we were…and out of the blue someone surprised us with fresh chocolate milkshakes. It was seriously the best milkshake we ever had, and we will always have that kind of stuff in our memories together. Even though that was a small thing, it was huge for us.
I also taught him to say “Get off my lawn you God Damned Hippies!” whenever there were people around. So that pretty much rules. He gets that Burning Man isn’t all just happy fun hippie stuff….it’s a fun, mischievous, place too.
JAELEE: He talks about it sometimes, but just that he really liked it and talks about the Man a lot.
JUDI: Dexter does talk about BM, quite fondly, especially how playa-kids are treated like “tiny gods”. When he was young, he was bummed that he was the only kid in his class who had not been to Disneyland. Then I pointed out that he was the only kid who had been to BM. He has no problem casually telling people that he’s a 9-time burner.
Do you think it’s affected your child? How?
JOSHUA: In 2012 he had a great time playing with our water mister and squirting people. In 2013 he was a little more of an upright being and I got to teach him about kindness and respecting others. And he LOVES the art! El Pulpo Mechanico is his favorite art car.
JAELEE: I think Burning Man has affected Marrow. Not from going, but from growing up his whole life with the same ideals. My husband and I are both non-conformists, and have raised him to be very open, loving, and accepting. We love communally and encourage the questioning of societal norms. So for Marrow, Burning Man was something familiar to him.
JUDI: Dexter’s exposure to the Burning Man community has shaped who he is. He is generous, accepting of others regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or belief. He appreciates creativity, self-reliance and the value of being different. He is very comfortable around adults, and has no problem talking to new people. He has a healthy respect and love for the natural world and loves camping. He’s brave, adventurous, worldly and genuinely kind to others. He’s open, he’ll ask me anything, even touchy subjects, because he knows he’ll get the truth. The only downfall is that he’s jaded. Nothing shocks him and he has distain for mediocrity.
Does Burning Man then significantly derail, for better or for worse, a child’s life (like it does for many adults)? The answer is elegantly simple. It seems that it simply doesn’t: the carefree and weird atmosphere at Burning Man seems only natural for a child, while teaching parents about honesty, children about values, and both about some hardcore survivalist camping.
All photos given by parent(s) with permission or were marked ‘all creative commons’ via flickr