Parenting on the Playa: Do Kids Belong at Burning Man?

The number of children attending Burning Man with their parents has steadily increased over the years, as Burners grow up and have babies and become more sentimentally attached to the Playa and its traditions. . . but how old is old enough for Burning Man? Do children belong in Black Rock City at all?

I’ve read a lot of back-and-forth on this subject in various forums, and the sheer breadth of the debate is dizzying. “Does Radical Inclusion have an age limit?” is only one of many questions that arise when we start talking about children on the Playa.

If we want to talk about how appropriate or inappropriate it is to bring children to Burning Man, we first have to figure out just what Burning Man is. . . but ask ten people, and you’re liable to get ten different answers.

“It’s an arts festival.”

“It’s a hippie drug orgy.”

“It’s an experiment in gift economics.”

“It’s a giant Black Mass devoted to the Burning Man, Satan, where they summon demons using ancient rituals and rape each other. That’s why God makes earthquakes happen.”

“It’s the greatest networking opportunity ever.”

“It’s an experiment in intentional community.”

“It’s a big camping trip in the desert where you can do whatever you want.”

“It’s a sacred gathering to honor our mother, the Earth, and re-establish our spiritual bonds with her like the Native Americans once did.”

“It’s a lot of hard work. Free Bird!”

“Who cares? I’m on vacation. Pass the DMT.”

The truth, it seems to me, is that to some extent Burning Man is all of these things and more (and yes, I’m including Satanists and rapists, because we have both). Black Rock is the third-largest city in Nevada when we’re there; it’s no tiny hamlet and it certainly isn’t just a bunch of people on a camping trip. It’s not a city like other cities, though, and there are many points at which the civic/metropolitan analogy breaks down entirely.

Ultimately, the Playa is the blankest canvas that the Cacophony Society could find to replace Baker Beach, and Burning Man is anything and everything that we write upon that canvas. As it has gotten bigger, more and more limits have been placed on our creativity and on the scope of our recreational activities, for the sake of safety and to avoid displeasing the BLM and local authorities beyond their ability to look the other way and concentrate on all the revenue we generate for them.

(Incidentally, if you’d like to know more about how we got to the Playa and what came before, keep your eyes peeled for the soon-to-be-released film Into the Zone: The Story of the Cacophony Society.)

Communities typically have well-defined standards of conduct and morality, and many of those are intended to shield children from the more wanton behaviors of their elders. In fact, even while the more generalized standards have loosened and tended farther toward personal freedoms, the protectiveness that communities exercise toward minors has tightened up quite a bit. Until 2003, it was illegal in several States to have oral or anal sex even if you were a married couple. Those acts are now legal and no longer characterized by law as “crimes against nature” or “unnatural and lascivious” as they once were. . . but meanwhile, it is often noted that American parents are more protective and sheltering and take more of a constant supervisory role in their children’s lives than ever before. Those of us who remember growing up in the ’70s and ’80s remember our childhood as a time when afternoons and weekends were filled with unsupervised shenanigans, acts of inadvisable derring-do, and explorations of our environs that would have made our parents’ heads explode if they’d known what we were up to. Without helicopter parents and video game consoles in our living rooms, it’s a wonder any of us survived our summer vacations to grow up and have kids of our own.

For me personally, the question of kids on the Playa is a little bit of a hot-button issue. I was raised with even less supervision than most, having been the product of a broken home and mostly brought up (or more accurately, left to my own devices) by ’60s-era hippies. At a very young age, I was dragged around to wild parties and late-night concerts. I smoked my first joint when I was five years old, and saw the Iron Butterfly play at the Fillmore that night. I’ve heard many people comment in a positive light on the presence of children at adult events like parties and concerts, saying things like “that kid is going to be really cool when he grows up.”

Sure, fine, I do like to think that I’ve grown up “really cool.” Not everyone would agree that I have, though, and it’s not really the point. I am not married to my own opinion on this subject and am not prepared to chisel it into a piece of marble to be displayed in the town square, but frankly I regard the kind of upbringing that I had as nothing short of child abuse.

It’s not just about the kids, either. A lot of Burners hit the Playa with the intention of cutting loose, bacchanal-style. It’s their yearly vacation, after all. . . and the presence of minors can put a real damper on your vacation when it involves activities traditionally regarded as being for adults only.

But hey, that’s what Kidsville is for, right? We have a section of our fair city in which children are not only welcome, they are the focus of the neighborhood’s standards; if our children are corralled into an area in which the worst thing they might be subjected to is the occasional shirtcocker or exposed pair of lady bumps, then I’m not terribly concerned. We’ve all got genitalia and it seems much more important to shield our kids from displays of violence than displays of skin.

Is nudity the worst thing your child might encounter on the Playa, though, even in Kidsville? What about the Playa itself? When we Burn we inhabit an extremely hostile environment that can easily be fatal and is certainly unhealthy and life-shortening just by virtue of all the alkaline dust in the air we breathe. We make it even more than usually hazardous with many of the things we like to do there. It may be a city, but it’s a rough-and-tumble one where safety is third, built smack dab in the middle of a howling wilderness. It’s a place and an event at which, at the very least, a larger-than-usual measure of responsibility is called for from parents who choose to tote their offspring along with them. . . and, arguably, it’s a place and an event that shouldn’t be attended by anyone who is unable to make the kinds of decisions for themselves that involve taking serious health risks and accepting the possibility of having your mind blown.

Even if you do accept that children have a place in Black Rock City, what exactly is that place? Corralled into the underage ghetto of Kidsville? Set loose to roam the city at will? Cradled in the oh-so-casual arms of blissed-out moms shushing people at the absinthe bar or the Thunderdome because the baby’s sleeping?

What do you think?

29 comments on “Parenting on the Playa: Do Kids Belong at Burning Man?

  1. Pingback: My Kid Shirtcocked Your Honor Student | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

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  3. We need a strong message against virgins bringing kids to the playa. If you don’t know what to expect yourself, then you should not bring you kid. Ideally, there should be a restriction on this written into the ticketing rules. We should definitely restrict sale of children’s tickets to non-virgins.

  4. Wow.
    I’m sorry the frat boys broke your burn, Elizabeth, and I mean that in complete sincerity. I have a camp in the suburbs populated with interesting folks who created art and performance works and we welcome every one. I do agree with much of what you say about Burning Man in general, though.
    Now about kids. We waited until our kids were old enough to go to Grandpa’s before we started coming to Burning Man pretty much so that we could have a big long carefree date. Every year(!) several times I wish C was here to see this.. E would love that. Next year lets bring them! They are big now 15 and 19- they have to get here on their own steam. Again, not because I don’t think they should be here, but its our date.
    However, I know lots of families who come and I think its a great place for responsible parents to bring their kids. Kidsville or not. A responsible parent would not bring their child to burning man and let them just “go have fun” any more than one would do that at Disneyland. Responsible parents make sure their children wear hats and drink enough water. They bundle them up during dust storms. They go back to camp for nap time. Responsible parents are not there to take drugs and party all night ( and if they DO have a rave night, they have a babysitter in camp). Parents who bring their kids to BurningMan are not too concerned about them seeing a penis(or a whole parade of them) or some breasts. If you grow up with nakeness and people comfortable in their skin, its not really all that shocking to see lots of them.
    I didn’t see anyone having sex on the La Llorona ( in fact I didn’t see any one having sex at all) and what kid would not LOVE that ship. What kid wouldn’t love Thunderdome? They may hear the word ‘fuck”- I don’t think they will be broken for life.
    Stupid drunk people are an excellent teaching opportunity! When kids are old enough to understand “sex with strangers” (thats a quote from above), then it’s time for some conversations. All of these things are available on hbo. Do you think we just let the kids figure it out on their own? Why would we here at Burning Man? We talk to our kids. ..and no Burnersxxxx, Im not saying bring your kids so that you can teach them ANYTHING in particular, just that seeing some people on drugs is not the end of the world as they know it. It really doesn’t have to be that big of a deal.

    Responsible parents have lots and lots of really cool things to do and places to take their kids at BurningMan and will steer them away from the places where they shouldn’t go.
    There is NO PLACE like Burning Man. NO where to experience the things that we see and do. Why would we deny our kids that kind of fun? Oh, well, because we’re on a date, but for others -Yeah! Bring ‘em. I’d love a temporary tattoo.
    Unless you have a risky teenager who is going to disappear on you and get into serious trouble- leave those kids at home!!

  5. i really hate seeing kids having a good time on the playa because it makes me feel less hardcore. i work hard at the mad-max look. there’s nothing that pisses me off more than seeing some little princess having more fun than i have.

    ban the little fcks NOW!

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  7. Unfortunately, Many people without children feel it ok to even voice their opinions. Unless you have children and have been one of those who has lost a child on the Playa, Best not to talk. Burningman is overwhelming for adults, how is it possibly less for a child? And, something most people chose not to discuss, is the physical endangerment for a child. The dust alone for developing lungs is DANGEROUS. Not to mention the amount of time exposed. One BLC Ranger felt it was ok to bring a one week old child to Burningman. Has the DMT effected your brain? Probably. Many of the people who attend BM, during the rest of the year are great supporters of self reliance, getting off the grid, organic food, no pesticides, etc.etc.But dueing that one week it is ok to expose your child to ANYTHING! Simply, most of the people I have ever talked to about bringing children to the Playa, say it’s alright, because they can’t find child care for that week. We do not have the right, even though we are parents to inflict our stupidity on our children. What is the difference in forcing a child who has no ability to make this decision on their own different form forcing a child to buy a doctrine from a religion? We are claiming that BM is a safe, alternative, healthy place to bring a child. Have you asked one who could make that choice on their own? Ask a 5 year old if they would like to go to the harshest desert in the middle of nowhere, breath dust and dirt for a week in 100 degree weather, watch adults taking drugs,parading their sexuality and staying out all night. Maybe they don’t have the ability to make that decision and therefore our “sound judgement” is not so sound. Selfish? Yes.
    Irresponsible?. Yes. It might be more prudent to address the issue of rape on the Playa or being drugged without one’s permission or consent. And, yes there is the possibility of that happening to your child as well. Find a babysitter.

    • “if you don’t have kids you’re not entitled to an opinion”. OK then. I will just walk around shitrtcocking with my dick out and say “cunt” and “fuck off” loudly and frequently, and pretend I don’t see your munchkins picking up baggies and other dangerous MOOPS abandoned by wasted Burners. Enjoy! I do agree with your point that most people bringing their kids are too lazy/impecunious/inept to arrange proper child care for a week.

      • > most people bringing their kids are too lazy/impecunious/inept to arrange proper > child care for a week

        Wow, you’re pretty big on stereotyping and generalizations, aren’t you? No, not everyone that brings kids to BM are lazy or inept at parenting, look to some of the other replies in this thread for some really thoughtful replies that refutes that. The vast majority of parents realize that once kids arrive their hardcore partying days are over, and they take that attitude with them to BM. Doesn’t mean that they don’t have a great time (or that they suddenly frown upon you having a good time), but BM is much more than a drunken/drugged up orgy out in the desert and has room for all kinds.

  8. I do think that there is an age range for children that is better suited to attending Burning Man… Until about 8 years old and then not again until legal drinking age! With love and experience, mother of six adult children.

  9. They are the next generation to carry on these ways. The default society will snuff it out if they can. Children need to see the true creativity and humanity that exits and not the banal smut on TMZ. No one’s vibe was impacted by my children’s presence. In fact, person after person stopped my children to tell them how lucky they were to be exposed to all this tremendous creativity and love so young. The tribe embraced them and they embraced the tribe. You were once young as well and think how different you life would be now if you had grown up on the playa then. You certainly wouldn’t have as many hang ups as you have now.

    • You found your own way to Burning Man without being raised there by your parents, and so will the next generation. Maybe getting there on your own is an important part of the experience. People tend not to appreciate anything handed to them on a platter by their parents.

      • Totally agree here, what will they have to look forwar to if they’ve been to BM by age 4…I have 4 kids ranging in ages from 4-10yrs, I prefer to leave them at home so myself and my hubby can have some adult fun, without having to worry about them.

      • You are working under the assumption that Burning Man will still be happening in 18 years when my kid would poentially be able to plan for, travel to and enjoy Burning Man. It may not be around forever, at least not the way it is conducted now. I was 23 the first time I attended and wish I had found it earlier in life. I never knew humans could interact with eachother the way they do at the burn. I want my child to grow up knowing that it’s possible for humans to be responsible, generous, caring, outgoing, inclusive, hard-working and creative; all while treating eachother well and having lots of fun. I will be bringing my lil guy to next year’s burn, fates willing!

  10. What is the point of even having ten principles if they are not going to be respected and handed down to the next generation. Leave no trace indeed- but leave a legacy, leave some sort of social impact to continue the movement of change. This perspective leaves burning man as just a party, and perhaps it is to some, maybe many people, but it has the potential of being so much more. There are bad parents in every culture and social group in the world. But to assume that all parents bringing their kids to burning man are walking some sort of line between taboo and sanctification is a fallacy. I have hosted a kids camp at Alchemy, the Georgia regional burn. I would do it every year if I could. When we had the kids together, we became a tribe. Every parent participated and contributed to the entire experience. We were also very mindful of the kids, had walkie talkies to go out in pairs at night while a group doing watch duty with the sleeping kids were behind at camp. During the day when we took the kids out into the city, we had a scout go ahead and radio an all clear that nothing too adult was in our path. We were aware of the possibility of unknowns and variables, just as any adult going to any burn takes responsibility for, and anything that occurred that was out of our comfortable, personal code of morals and ethics for each individual family was discussed in the way that is natural for conscious parents and children to do together. We had nothing but good reception from those without kids, and had lots of people stopping by to gift the kids with performances, costumes, face paint or just to be in the presence of little people who are growing and learning to one day construct the city in our absence. In the end, child or adult, parent or non parent, we must all respect our individual paths in life, stop judging, assuming and predetermining and simply acknowledge one another’s divinity.

      • …and even further; if Burning Man is NOT just a big party, then what specifically is it that parents are trying to teach their kids there? And why do they think their children can’t learn it anywhere else? It can’t be radical self-reliance. It probably can’t really be gifting, since kids are generally financially dependent on their parents. If it’s “costumes and performances are great”, aren’t there other, more family friendly events to take them to which feature these elements? America is a big country, and if you want to take your kids 5 hours from a major city, there are many events you can go to.
        If it’s “be careful of druggies and pedophiles”, then yes, it’s probably an ideal environment for them to learn such lessons. But, risky and dangerous – if 17 year old kids can go missing for days, so can 7 year olds. You could teach your kids this lesson with a lot less risk, just leave them alone in the Tenderloin for a few hours.
        The last thing I want to hear at Burning Man is “shush – my kids are trying to sleep”…although this year, at 11am on the Monday morning after the Temple Burn, ie days after Burning Man ended, I copped “shush…we have 80 year old people in our camp who are trying to sleep”.
        I have been to lots of dance parties in the world where kids were present; I would have to say that Burning Man is the #1 worst event for kids I could possibly imagine. Danger to their health, danger of them getting lost, danger of them seeing things their innocent little minds shouldn’t be exposed to, and just a general danger of them having a bad time and crying and annoying everyone else around them with their negative vibe. If you’ve ever had a first class plane ticket ruined by screaming/undisciplined kids, you’ll realize that kids are not the most passive, happy travellers, especially in unfamiliar environments. What benefit does it truly bring you, or the kids, to bring them to this event? Can you guarantee that the presence of your kids won’t intrude on anyone else’s good time?
        If you really want to take kids to the Playa, 4th of Juplaya is a much safer environment with many similar elements.

      • “What are we trying to teach our kids?”

        I brought my 9 year old daughter this year. Somebody mentioned La Llorona– well she was a little part of the crew. You know those lights on the pier? The buoys under the pier? The dingys strewn about (Your Mom, Kathy, Tommy, and the unnamed green boat)? Pappy’s Master Bait Shop? She had a hand in all of those, alongside her mama, for the past 2 years. And I’ll tell you what she has learned.

        She’s learned gifting and loving from living in the BM community year round with me and my friends. She’s learned that creativity is valuable, even if its value isn’t always recognized monetarily. But we left the burn this year with a huge lesson that she got that she hadn’t gotten in our hometown Reno which is bustling w/ burner culture.

        The thing that she got from this, her first year at the burn at age 9, is an unshakable belief that whatever you want to make, you CAN. She is going to debunk all the teachers and anybody else in her life that makes her think that her creativity isn’t valuable. She already has ideas for projects up the wazoo. She, at age 9, now believes, more than ever, that she can do ANYTHING… because hell, we built a fricking shipwreck in the desert.

        I would have loved to have gotten that lesson at age 9 rather than at 35.

        She’s also told me that instead of christmas presents this year, she wants people to donate to a cause using the money they would have spent on toys she will quickly tire of. I told her I’d join her with that. We don’t need any more “things”.

        I take my mom duties very seriously. I was 100% there for her, she didn’t spend any time apart from me. I was sober and at her beck and call the whole time, making sure she was eating, resting, hydrating, and smiling. Good parents will be good parents on or off the playa and I’m glad she got the experience she did when she did.

      • Thank you for your well put comment. I would never suggest for a second, that kids don’t have something to add to Black Rock City. For sure, a lot of kids could enjoy the experience and add to it. But, it only takes one where something goes wrong, for it to be an incredible disaster all around. This isn’t about the good kids and the good parents. In a city of 61,000+, it’s wrong to assume that everyone is in that category. We nearly got there this year with a missing 15-year old, an assaulted 17 year-old, and who knows whatever previous experiences that have not been well publicized. We’re not convinced that what BRC offers to kids is worth the balance. Especially if I have to turn my sound system down! Any kids or old people who are happy to see bright flashing lights and lasers, and hear loud doof doof doof music all night long, are welcome – Burners.Me will support them to the hilt. Any parents who think “I’ll bring my kids, and let them wander around by themselves unattended”…will earn our wrath

  11. I am planning on bringing my 12 yo next year. We won’t be in Kidsville we will be front row Center. My burn is not all that wild. I love meeting people and seeing the sights. If a kid being around makes you self-conscious that is entirely on you, the kid is having fun while you fret.

    • I will act exactly the same whether you bring your kids or not. If that’s cool with you, it’s cool with me. You enjoy your Burn, I’ll enjoy mine. It’s when someone asks me to moderate my behavior due to the presence of kids (or the elderly) that I think “maybe this is not the best environment for them to bring their kids to”. But then, I’m happy to watch the Temple burn down while Freebird plays. I’m not a hater, I enjoy it all.

  12. i met a couple that brought their two week old baby to burning man. mom was interviewed by la contessa at BMIR while dad stayed outside with baby. it was at sunrise, and the baby was wrapped up and looked comfortable in its covered stroller. it was easy to tell this baby was loved and given proper care.

  13. I think…no wait…I don’t even think, I know…that kids are not only allowed, they’re encouraged at Burning Man, so it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks about it. It’s been that way from Day One. The debate about their presence is ridiculous. It’s not an “adult” event – never has been. The fact that some adults want to cut loose and feel that having kids there is inhibiting them is THEIR problem. This is a community – not a rave – regardless of how many people keep trying to turn it into one.

    The argument that kids prohibit folks from having the fun they want to have is senseless. What are people wanting to do that they can’t do in front of kids? Fuck? Well, public acts of sex are illegal and the BLM/LEOs frown upon that, so stop blaming it on the kids. Nudity? Drugs? Well…they are illegal, too…and I can pretty much assure you that no kid is interested in hanging with an unintelligibly wasted stranger.

    The argument about health is also ridiculous. We poison our kids with food and vaccines every day and not nearly enough people get their panties in a bunch about THAT.

    If you don’t like kids, just say so, and don’t mask it behind “concern” over their health…or claiming that they cramp anyone’s style. Bringing kids to the Burn is the choice of the parents. They are not “prohibited items”…they are BEINGS, like you and me and everyone else on this board. People, you know? Just shorter and sometimes wiser.

    • Hey Fabi,
      I do not agree with your comment that BM is a community not a rave. I attended BM in 1998 and then worked for the DPW from 1999 through 2007. While the intent of BM in the beginning was to create an alternative community, the sad fact is that BM has turned into the worlds largest cocktail party and rave camp. Gone are the camps in the suburbs populated with interesting folks who created art and performance works.welcoming everyone into their camps.Replaced by giant RV’s and folks who could care less if they interacted with anyone but the community they brought with them or who they hired to wipe their asses , set up their camps and cook and clean up for them. In 2007 I approached a family dressed as pirates because I too had assumed a pirate character and costume. (Ann Bonney) When I approached the family to share a children’s pirate joke, as I work with kids and know a lot of kid jokes I was vilified by the Mom before I could even share the response to the joke which asked “How much does a pirate charge to pierce your ears. The response (ahrgg! a buccaneer) which I was not able to share with the kids because I had to endure a rant about the gift economy where everything was free.This was this moment that illustrated to me that BM was over and the original intent had been hijacked by rich, entitled folks who should just stay home. BM is not a place for kids as the event revolves around drugs alcohol, and free range sexual experiences with strangers. All I can say about the present incarnation of BM is ewwww! I would love to see the event return to its original format which was mostly people building forts in the middle of no where while they played with fire in high winds and a harsh environment, striving to complete their art work before the event closed on Sunday night. No fireworks, no RV’s, very few generators and if the art was not finished in seven days then it disappeared until the following year. .I live in Gerlach and the” event” begins in July and does not end until October. So much for radical self reliance. That theme has morphed into radical self entitlement. Further more millions upon millions of dollars of resources go up in smoke each year. Consider the footprint of 50 to 60,00 cars waiting in line for hours and how much gas is wasted. Not to mention all of the lumber that is burnt for the sake of making another didactic comment about the current state of our society.Really all these didactic statements say is “Look at me! Look at me” I did take a look and I didn’t and don’t like what I saw. If all of the BM participants feel it is imperative to come to the desert and continue to ruin the surface of the Playa please do me a favor and leave your kids at home until they are old enough to make that choice for themselves.

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