Fun For All The Family?

At NPR, Audie Cornish and Will Stone from Reno Public Radio have a segment on parents who bring their kids to Burning Man. I am posting the transcript on my non-commercial blog so I can personally discuss it. You can listen here, or read the transcript:

The Burning Man festival has long attracted people to northern Nevada’s desert for a week of radical self-expression. Now, Reno Public Radio’s Will Stone reports that long-time “burners” are bringing their kids along to participate. But many burners questions that decision, saying that sex and drugs are everywhere and the fun should be reserved for adults.


Burning Man, the week long festival of radical self-expression kicks off later this month in the Nevada desert. It attracts college students, aging hippies, tech CEO’s, and suburban soccer moms. As the event has grown, so has the number of families bringing kids. And as we hear from Will Stone of Reno Public Radio, the burner community is conflicted about being family friendly.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Zella Johnson was 4 years old when she experienced her first burn.

ZELLA JOHNSON: I keep a lot of stuff that lights up here. They’re, like, bracelets that light up at night.

STONE: Now at the ripe age of 9, she and her twin brother are veterans of the playa, the dry lake bed where the countercultural festival takes place. She produces a pair of feathered goggles, part of her furry Burning Man ensemble.

Z. JOHNSON: You have to wear goggles on because there can be sand blowing everywhere.

photo by Peter Ruprecht

photo by Peter Ruprecht

GUY JOHNSON: We’ve got our bikes pretty dialed in.

STONE: Zella’s father, Guy Johnson, who’s a real estate agent here in Reno – he’s showing off their garage, packed with generations of tricked-out bicycles. This year he’s constructed a yellow pedicab.

G. JOHNSON: The pedicab trailer has an umbrella on it, and I’ve also just a couple of days ago installed some speakers so that my passengers can have some music.

STONE: Ask Zella why she likes Burning Man and she lists dozens of activities that sound right out of an elaborate kid’s birthday party.

Z. JOHNSON: They took a giant playground equipment thing and filled it with foam. So you’d climb up on it, and then you’d fall into a bunch of foam.

STONE: She also has tales of peanut butter and jelly buffets and bouncing on trampolines in KidsVille, a family-friendly camp. Johnson and his wife, Lorri Nielsen, a nurse practitioner, say some people judge them harshly for bringing their kids. Burning Man attracts over 60,000 people, and many are there to let loose which can include nudity, sexual behavior, alcohol and drugs.

LORRI NIELSEN: People think everyone out there is running around naked, and that’s really not what it’s about. The occasional person you see like that but…

G. JOHNSON: Black Rock City’s just like any other city. I mean there are kid-friendly activities, but on the other hand there’s also adult-only – adult oriented activities and camps. And, you know, we just don’t take our kids to those.

It’s like any other city, with 1000 sound systems and more than 60,000 people on vacation and taking drugs. Like Cancun on Spring Break is just like any other city…if nudity was permitted and 10% of the population went to Orgy Dome. If there was a parade of 4000 topless or fully nude women on bicycles. If there were hundreds of art cars full of wasted people driving without any roads or obvious direction.

kids burning man 3STONE: While most burners say it’s about the spiritual and artistic experience, some, like Matt Peek, feel it’s still not appropriate for his own two young daughters.

MATT PEEK: The nudity is one thing. I’m certainly not a prude but little girls – and for that matter, little boys – don’t need to see naked men walking around.

STONE: Peek would never tell others not to bring their kids, but he’s volunteered in the middle tent there and seen intoxicated children. He recalls one time a mother brought her young son to him.

PEEK: Her story went something like, he said he grabbed a cup of something that he thought was juice and it tasted like gasoline, and then he started acting weird, and she brought him to the tent. What the hell was she thinking he would find in a red cup?

Exactly. And what were Burners thinking, to put down their drink? A kid might take that! Where’s the Civic Responsibility? It’s just like any other city, where every drink probably contains alcohol, and it’s in the middle of a hot, dry, dusty desert and there are no water fountains. Parents who can control their kids aren’t the problem. It’s parents who can’t teach their kids basic things – that should apply anywhere – like, don’t drink other peoples’ drinks. Don’t eat that chocolate brownie, it might be magic. It only takes one tragedy, to ruin it for everyone.

I’m all for intoxicated children. Is it worth the risk to everyone else? Is it fair that Burners miss out on tickets so these kids can sneak off and get wasted?

STONE: Along with safety concerns, some burners want it to be adults only because they feel having kids out there inhibits them.

JIM GRAHAM: If that’s what you’re looking for, then Burning Man is not for you. You might want to go find something else to do because this will always be a family-friendly event.

STONE: That’s Jim Graham, who works for Burning Man. He says, actually, kids have been at the event since the mid ’80s when it began, and anyone 12 and under gets in for free. But there are certain parts of the playa where minors aren’t allowed. 

Jim is sort of missing the point about this debate. It’s not just “should kids be part of our city or not”. It’s “now that cops are doing undercover stings, should the event be 21 and over” so that all Burners are protected? An all ages event, where booze is free, is just asking for problems – as the red cup story above shows. If a Burner gives a free drink to someone who’s 20, it’s them who’s going to get in trouble, not BMOrg. Sure, the idea in the beginning was to let kids come too. Most of the hippies back then couldn’t afford babysitters, and this is still a major factor for Mom-and-Pop Burners wanting to bring kids today. But the idea in the beginning was also to get away from authorities, to create a Temporary Autonomous Zone with its own rules. There was freedom, there was anarchy, there were “Satanists with Guns”. Did you know that the creator of the whole “TAZ” idea is a pedophile, who writes articles for the National American Man/Boy Love Association?

Kids get in for free. Presumably they are counted in the population cap. Is that what happened to the 9000 tickets between the 70,000 population cap and the 61,000 that were officially sold? Is that why Burners have to jump through all of these hoops of OMGSTEP, spending a year waiting in hope and being repeatedly disappointed? Just so that kids who can’t afford to gift anything can get in for free?

Kids love Burning Man because they can touch and climb all over things, in a way they can’t in the Default World:

kids faceSTONE: Back at the Johnson-Nielsen household, Lorri Nielsen says oftentimes parents come up to her asking, what’s it like to bring your kids?

NIELSEN: You know, when they first get there, they’re a little timid ’cause all the art is interactive. So, you know, here we’re always like don’t touch that. Sit down, behave. What do you hear at Burning Man? It’s Burning Man – do it.

Z. JOHNSON: Climb on it.

NIELSEN: Mess with it.

This makes no sense to me. In the default world, public structures have safety standards. In Burning Man, there’s little if any of that. The giant structures move around and shoot fire. Things get hot enough to burn the skin. An artist recently started a campaign to stop people messing with their art. Should kids just run around climbing and messing with stuff, because it’s Burning Man?

STONE: And that freedom is what appeals to so many burners, regardless of age. For NPR News, I’m Will Stone in Reno.

 …and to so many cops, looking to write tickets and set Burners up with undercover underage stings.

2 comments on “Fun For All The Family?

  1. I’m okay with kids at BM. But not girls 14-16. Every time one of these young ladies runs off with a DPW gutter rat for a few days of ‘deep playa’ing’ BMorg orders an Amber Alert. I mean, just go over to the DPW ghetto first before calling an emergency like that. Every guy on the playa gets treated like a criminal for 72 hours while little Suzie is searching for her panties in 8 different tents.

    • LOL. They should be in high school anyway. The age of consent for LGBT action in Nevada is 18, so if a 17 year old girl makes out with an older woman, it’s straight to the registered sex offenders list for the woman as a statutory rapist.

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