It’s strangely easy to be judgmental about the way other people raise their kids. The idea that a young person is being raised badly brings the knives out.
Perhaps it’s because kids are innocent and helpless, so that defending them is one of the few truly noble deeds we can perform in this life. Perhaps it’s because everybody’s got parents and everybody was raised somehow – so parenting is one of the few standards we have in common. Or maybe we’re all just judgmental fucks looking for an excuse. It would explain so much.
Whatever the cause: Complaining about what other people’s parents are doing wrong is perhaps the most popular human pastime after making kids in the first place.
That’s probably why every subculture I’m familiar with has, at some point, had an existential crisis about their kids.
People in the Society for Creative Anachronism worried about how their kids will develop if they feel a little too comfortable with feudalism; parents into BDSM have worried how much to disclose and how much to keep secret. Is it okay to insist that your 10-year old son be a flag bearer who died at Antietam for three weekends a year? Can you bring your kids to a Star Trek convention if you want them to grow up and enjoy a healthy sex life?
God, people are weird.
All of them are worried – and yet only the children of the rich are famous for consistently turning into horrible, horrible, human beings. Makes you think.
These same tensions bubble up periodically among Burners.
Different parents allow their children different amounts of exposure to our human zoo, and while some of us delight in kids others feel uncomfortable having them around. Periodically people within our own community will come up with the bright idea that kids should only be allowed at Kidsville … or that there should be no Kidsville … or that there should be no kids at Burning Man at all.
These arguments never entirely go away, but they also don’t get very far because – let’s be honest – a movement that asks parents to choose between a party and their kids only gets to keep the very worst people. We don’t want that. So we incorporate parents into Burning Man even though many of us honestly prefer to keep kids at arm’s length.
Now Apache County in Arizona is forcing the issue by refusing to issue permits for the Arizona regional unless it is an 18-and-older event. Whereas before our internal discussions about kids were mostly hypothetical, we are now forced to come up with a concrete position we can put to a government body: how do we feel about kids at Burning Man and how do we want to explain it?
This could be hard: there’s nothing worse than being asked “How do you feel about kids?” by the wrong person at the wrong time.
Nor can we really expect Burners to agree on an approach to parenting. We can’t even agree on an approach to sound camps. (Fucking techno.) As I’ve suggested elsewhere: Burners are not unified by much of a common philosophy or set of common motives.
But I do think there are two broad strokes we can agree on.
The first is that anybody who tells you they’ve got raising kids all figured out is a liar or a fool.
Seriously “mainstream” America: how are your kids turning out?
Fundamentalists raise drug addicts and criminals just like everybody else; gated communities have teen pregnancy and school drop-outs just like everybody else; suburbs raise anorexics and alcoholics just like everybody else. From Rousseau to Dr. Phil, from research universities to self-help authors, from public schools to private schools, more time, money and brainpower has probably been devoted to figuring out how to raise perfect kids every time than any other problem in human history short of “how do I get lucky tonight?”
It hasn’t worked. Nobody’s got it figured out. No matter what approach you try or rules you set down, your kids are probably going to be fuck-ups with unhealthy body images, just like you.
Which is to say that we don’t need to be defensive about the environment at Burning Man events. Mainstream America invented the “unhealthy environment for kids,” and keeps it going. Hey, at least at Burning Man they won’t be inundated by commercials. At least at Burning Man they’ll be off their cell phones and outside enjoying nature.
But we do know one thing: parents who are empathetically engaged in their children’s lives yet capable of setting meaningful boundaries tend (tend) to have better results. Nothing else seems to work consistently.
Parents like that are the best arbiters of what their kids can take. Hands down. Anyone else … including Burning Man and Burners … should just butt out.
By all means, let’s not sell tickets to people underage – just as movie theaters won’t sell tickets to an R rated movie to teens and liquor stores won’t sell booze to kids under 21. But individual parents can purchase their kids a ticket to see any movie they want, or serve them wine with dinner. There are guidelines about attendance, but the state only steps in when it has actual reasons to think that specific people are unfit parents.
If it has such reasons, by all means: it should present them to the appropriate authorities. But otherwise it needs to stay out of parenting as much as possible. If parents want to buy tickets for their kids, it would be arrogant and presumptuous of us … or the state … to presume it knows better.
I think that’s ground we can stand on. We may have to.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are not statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com