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 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?