by Whatsblem the Pro
Where the subject of children attending Burning Man comes up, controversy follows. Strong opinions run the gamut, from people who believe that radical inclusion necessarily means juveniles too, to those who look askance at parents who bring their children to an adult party in a hazardous environment, or even call the practice a form of child abuse.
We’ve explored this topic before, but there’s an important demographic that remains unheard in the controversy: children who grew up going to Burning Man.
Haley Dahl is eighteen years old, and has been going to Burning Man since she was nine. She lives in Los Angeles, where she rocks out with her band, Sloppy Jane.
I met Haley on the playa, and she promised to write to me after the burn and tell me all about her experience growing up in Black Rock City. This is what she wrote:
When I was a child and my family was still an unbroken unit, we would take trips to my Grandpa Yab’s country house in upstate New York every summer. I have only a few vague memories of these traditional family retreats; holding my Raggedy Ann doll in a bed that smelled like leaves, walking in the forest with my grandpa to go see butterflies, and a sense of normalcy that I at this point in my life feel totally disconnected from, because once upon a time in 2004 my dad approached me and said “so this summer we have a few options. We can either go to the country house, or we can do a weird mystery thing that I’m not going to tell you anything about.” And this was how nine-year-old me ended up at Burning Man.
We went, just my dad and I. I remember at that point there was still no cell phone service in Gerlach. We left the last gas station in Nixon and called my mom, her voice quivered on the phone when she said goodbye to us right before we went over a metal bump that signified the end of cell range. I’ll never forget the way she sounded, it was as if she thought that we were never coming back. And I guess, in a way, we never really did. We never went back to the country house. And as we passed through Gerlach, my dad pointed into the desert and said “that is where we are going.” And I said “you mean by the giant cloud of dust?” He looked at me and said “the cloud of dust is where we are going.”
When we got in it was dark. We went to Kidsville. The mayor was wearing a top hat and a diaper. We walked to Center Camp and we thought it was all of Burning Man, and we were totally blown away by it. We put up our tent, it blew away. We spent the rest of the week in the car. I had no costumes so I painted myself blue and wore a mylar emergency blanket as a toga.
The next day we walked around and I remember feeling so overwhelmed by all of the colors, the costumes, the art, it was a world I felt like I had made up in my imagination that had materialized in front of me. I teared up and it made my dad panic. He asked if I was doing okay and asked if I was going to need to go home. I looked up at him and said “thank you for bringing me here.”
I think Burning Man is an excellent environment for children if you are willing to be a parent. Not a fly-little-birdy-go-experience-life-Mommy’s-on-acid kind of parent, but the kind of parent that actually DESIRES to treat Burning Man like a family vacation. Let me explain that a little better; I have talked to a lot of adults who have said “oh, so your parents gave up their Burning Man experience for you.” That is not how I feel about it. My parents are not polyamorous drug-takers or heavy drinkers. They weren’t “giving up” the right to go to the Orgy Dome; they wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. So it was pretty easy for them to steer me away from anything too raw. I think having attended Burning Man as a child was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It gave me a very strong sense of self at an early age, I entered middle school with self-esteem and totally did not give a shit if I was ostracized for it because I knew I was cool as shit. And in case you didn’t know, that is incredibly rare for a middle school girl.
THAT BEING SAID, I STRONGLY SUGGEST AGAINST BRINGING YOUR FUCKING TEENAGE DAUGHTER TO BURNING MAN. Bringing your child to Burning Man as a child is awesome because they get to spend their early developmental stages being told that it’s totally fine to be an individual. Once your kid is a teenager, especially a girl, I think it’s advisable to take a few years off.
People really like to act like Burning Man is a really safe environment where everyone has evolved past normal human bullshit. That just isn’t true. I’m an attractive young woman who has lived in both Los Angeles and New York, places known for having high scumbag populations. It is safe to say that I have experienced more blatant sexual harassment confrontations at Burning Man than I have anywhere else I have ever been.
Because I attended Burning Man as a child, I grew up pretty fast mentally, and because of hormones in food (or something) I grew up pretty fast physically too. I was an old fourteen, and that was around when Burning Man started becoming less safe for me. People like to pretend that because it’s Burning Man it’s totally okay to catcall and/or be aggressively sexual towards women. That is not okay, especially if the woman is in fact a fourteen-year-old girl.
I remember being drunk and in one of the big dance camps and making out with some random guy. I said “how old are you?” he said “I’m twenty-five.” I said “I’m fourteen.” He paused, looked slightly surprised, and said “I won’t tell if you won’t. . .” and thus began a long saga of disgusting men taking advantage of my naivety and teenage drunkenness.
Fast-forward two years to my (now ex) douchebag post-2009 burner boyfriend in his five-hundred-dollar fire-spinning attire drunkenly spitting at me and screaming in my face about how I didn’t know how to experience Burning Man because I wouldn’t let him be free and sleep with other people.
The main problem with growing up at Burning Man is that Burning Man grows up with you. It’s not the home it used to be. The increase in popularity and rise in prices has turned it into a playground for bourgeois assholes who like to act like taking ecstasy and cheating on your wife with a nineteen-year-old white girl wearing a bindi and a feather headdress is enlightenment.
I will always wonder if Burning Man has really changed so hugely since my childhood, or if I am just seeing different sides of it because I’m older now. I’m sure it’s a combination of the two, but ever since Bad Idea Theater closed I’ve spent all of every night at the Thunderdome. . . because if I wanted to go to a fucking rave I would just go to downtown L.A. and pay ten bucks instead of five hundred, you know?
Anyway, by the time I was seventeen I was bored of drugs. Now I’m eighteen, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t drink much, and I go to the gym every day. I never go to parties and I’m not even going to college because my career has already started. If there is anything that Burning Man has robbed me of (other than a fucking normal life), I’d say it robbed me of my twenties. I watch Fraser. Enough said.
Do you have a first-hand story about growing up at Burning Man? Tell us all about it in the comments after you check out Haley’s band, Sloppy Jane, playing the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood: