Growing Up Burning

The Catch - Norman RockwellThe last time a debate about children at Burning Man flared up, I asked one of the people I knew who had grown up as a “burner kid” what she thought about the question.  Electra Carr went to her first Burning Man when she was 11.  Now 21, she sent an eloquent response to my question … which got lost between inboxes for a year-and-a-half because I really am that bad at getting back to people sometimes.  

So this is a horribly late addition to the debate, but is still worth reading.  

Other kids of burners want to weigh in?  Leave a comment at the bottom, or if you had a growing up experience at Burning Man and want to write a guest essay about it, send me a message.  (Caveat at BurningMan dot com).  I’ll try to get back to you a little sooner.  I swear.

From here on, the words you read are Electra’s.

- Caveat

 

There has been endless discussion about the subject of children attending Burning Man. I have heard the many opinions scattered across the board, from people who do take their kids and think its vital part of their childhood and parents who can’t imagine bringing their children into the desert. People who think it should be each person’s choice, others who rally for a committee to decide. There are those who are uncomfortable with the thought of a kid wandering past while they may be doing something they deem inappropriate for young eyes and people who are fine with having kids attend as long as they’re cordoned off in Kidsville. And of course, people who really don’t care and wish everyone would just stop talking about it.

However, at the focal point of this topic there is an opinion that has been greatly overlooked.  What about the children themselves who had grown up amongst the culture? It is a voice worth exploring, and as no two experiences are ever the same at Burning Man, I’d like to encourage everyone to talk to a Burner kid about it. I was such a child and while I’ve grown away from the Burning Man culture and rarely make the pilgrimage out to the Playa, I was there, I experienced, and I was changed.

I can remember the long jolting drive towards the entrance, full of stops and starts. People converging like crazed ants. Before we passed Gerlach I had climbed into the top bunk of our RV, the Le American, and stayed there, peeking from behind pink curtains. We must have been in line for an hour or more, till someone rang a bell and inducted us into The City.

At first glance, creaking at five miles an hour down the road, the whole place was underwhelming. Just dusty people who looked like they’d gotten lost hiking, living in even dustier encampments. It wasn’t really until we had passed the first real camp that Burning Man revealed itself. Transformed in the blink of an eye.

It was Wonderland and Neverland colliding and exploding, Burning Man rising up from the ash and dust; a postapocalyptic civilization born from magic and madness.

Everywhere was a bright mosaic of cobbled shelters, illuminated inhabitants dancing for us in greeting. They were exciting in their oddness and frightening as they reveled in their individuality. I was a shy child. These people terrified me. I was pretty sure that the man we’d just gone by was wearing a skirt just like one my mother owned and in front of us was a woman climbing free from a giant flower bud, naked but for blue paint.

I believe Burning Man has a way of affecting people, all people. It’s a place where fifty thousand plus people had reached into their souls and smeared what they found across a desert. I don’t think you can expect to take a child to Burning Man and not have them be affected any less than an adult might. For me those experiences I had and the changes I went through were all beneficial in the long run.

I spent my first day on the playa hiding in my bed, escaping into fantasy books. By the end of the week I was being hailed as the Munchkin Queen, trailed by a gang of fierce, wild children.

I think I gained the most out of Burning Man from my time spent in Kid’s Camp, mostly because it is the place I stayed the most. I participated in a functioning group of families, coexisting in a way that felt closer to rightness than I have ever felt before. Everyone looked after one another’s children, not as a chore or assigned duty, but as a communal understanding that that was just the way things were supposed to be.

I imagine that a long time ago when people roamed together in tribes, this is what it must have been like. That particular sense of community, that rightness, has stuck with me for years, carving my views and inspiring my desire to have a life that echos those intuitive ideals.

While Kids Camp was my sanctuary, there was always the outside world, the chaos held at bay only by the invisible walls the keepers of Kid’s Camp had constructed. I would venture into the outside world with my mother, safe by her side as we explored the strange and the shocking.

The Playa is unlike any place I’ve seen before, but it is exactly like the rest of the world in the fact that people are going to do things and other people are going to witness it, even children, because children are people too.

I can’t speak for the kids of Burning Man, much less the parents, but I can say that for me, seeing the actions of an open culture around me had cleverly robbed taboo of its power. What is the point of drinking behind my mother’s back in giddy rebellion if she doesn’t mind if I share her gin and tonic by the campfire? Why would I be disturbed by nudity when, after the hundredth passerby, it becomes clear that nakedness doesn’t really imply anything other than a lack of clothes or an expression of self? And if you’re lucky enough to have parents who take the time to talk to you, which many Burner kids do, why would I be alarmed by witnessing something confusing when my mother is willing to talk instead of sweeping it under the cover of denial?

Kids are going to grow up and become adults by seeing the world for what it is and having experiences that push them towards new levels of maturity and understanding. Burning Man did a wonderful job in offering me a view of the world not everyone gets to see and amazing experiences that shaped the way I approach my life. Not all of my time spent on the Playa was positive, of course, but I attribute those instances to being just the way life is in general, not as a consequence to attending Burning Man itself. There are going to be good times. There are going to be bad times.

Looking back now I see that Burning Man has rewarded and enriched my life in many ways that I don’t think I would have found anywhere else. I am grateful that my mother took me and allowed me to participate in the full range of Burning Man culture. I am grateful to Burning Man for providing a space for me to learn about community, to explore my own creativity, express myself in ways more difficult to express within general society. I don’t regret attending Burning Man and I would go as far as to say that the parts of me that were shaped by the Burn are some of the parts of me that I like the best.

In the end, taking children to Burning Man has always been and should always be a decision made by the parents, because their children are ultimately their responsibility. It is my hope that they talk to their children, prepare them both for the environment, the people they may meet, and be willing to discuss what is going on around them. To the other attendees, yes a child may be present, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’ve been drafted to be a role model. Understand that parents and guardians have made the decision to bring their children and they are their responsibility.

To restrict children from Burner events is to start chipping away at the once steadfast power of Burning Man values. Radical Inclusion, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility. If Burning events go down the path of banning children I imagine that the next topic of discussion will have to be how to regulate all that radical self expression that has become rampant in the community.

Electra Carr was first brought to Burning Man at the age of 11. An aspiring writer, she lives in Phoenix, where yearly she weighs her fantasies of returning to the Playa against the reality of the dust still caked to her camping gear.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

21 thoughts on “Growing Up Burning

  • My main problem with children at Burning Man is when I’m rockin-it and feeling totally Mad-Max, then some kid wanders by having more fun than me. It makes me feel less hard-core. I think it’s time to ban children.

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  • @G

    I suppose. But I like being rough and tumble out there. I think the chicks dig it. I rub myself with dust to give me that authentic look. And then these little broken condoms come around having fun and stuff. Totally kills my too-cool-for-school vibe. Makes me want to dump a beer on their precious little angel heads.

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  • I respect others view on both sides of the argument. I attended BM for the first time in 2012 with my (at the time) 4 yr old son and we camped in Kidsville (AWESOME!!) We went by ourselves..and did all seven days. We slept in a tent and experienced all the dust (literally) had to offer! We were first timers together! We explored the playa, most if not all of the other Burners we came across seemed more than accepting to children. They stopped to see how he was enjoying his time…escorting him onto the plank or the jail cell of the sunken ship.. After about day 1, the nudity didn’t seem to phase him while he pranced around in his black skull tutu his grandmother had purchased just for him….At night he climbed into the bike trailer and we rode around attending every dance party we could including dancing outside on the wooden tables outside of Opulent Temple. The experience was, as most people who attend, life altering. We have been changed. The following year when we did not attend, but opted for Disney around the same time as BM…he couldn’t stop saying “I’d rather be on the playa momma”. And everytime we are out and see funky costumes or hats he says, “lets get this for the playa next year Momma!” So this year..we are returning home. We understand there are parts of the playa where little ones should not be roaming..and I understand that some out there will not recieve our presence with open arms. But if us as adults find this experience so uplifting, and life changing and beautiful…why on Earth would we not want to share this with children if the parents choose so to bring them? Too often now are children not only the victims but the source of bullying and abuse…why not enfold them in an atmosphere of love and acceptance? So, again, like I said..I respect and understand the opposition…But me and my little “broken condom” (which is not true…I didn’t use one:) will be out there prancing with you this year:)

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  • Well put Electra. I’m glad you had a good experience. It makes me wish I was a kid going to BM.

    I don’t mind kids at any event as long as they are well behaved and respectful (cool, that is). And I hope that the parents of these children feel the same while allowing and welcoming the freedom for their children to explore.

    But most of all, I want to see the curiosity that kids are so cool for, on their faces when they take in a magical moment. It reminds me of myself.

    Yes, perhaps they will be exposed to some strange things, but hopefully they will get some good exposure as well and caulk it up to an experience they’ll treasure for life.

    Aloha,
    Rico

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  • Burner and father here; I don’t think the kids are the ones we need to worry about. Kids are fine almost anywhere – of course they’ll be fine at Burning Man. They’ll have some crazy fun; they’ll cry some. But come on, they do that anywhere they are. They see the whole world for the first time. They come across new and amazing things every hour – even if they’re in suburbia. It doesn’t depend so much on where you are but how you see – and kids of course see everything as new and exciting. Kids going, or not going – not that big a difference.

    Parents, now – there, we need to worry. Are playa parents going to be able to be completely free, now that they have brought their parent-role to the playa? Maybe some are; and maybe others aren’t.

    So each should make their own decision.

    If you bring your kids to the playa because you think it will be awesome _for them_, even though it’s going to make it harder for you – THEN DONT. The kids don’t need it. You do. Your kids need you. So the kids really need you to not take them.

    If you bring your kids just because – bring them. You’re not a helicopter parent, you’re not “doing it for them”, you just love having them around at all times. DO IT.

    There’s no judgement either way. Just know what you’re doing.

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  • Hi Folks, I’m looking at attending with my eldest, 16 year son. Thought it might be good for just the two of us this time, maybe use it as a rite of passage and take next son when he is 16. I’m not too worried about what goes on because I know he’s seen much weirder and unhealthier shit on the internet so pushing our normal conservative boundaries might open some dialogue so we can actually talk about stuff. Any thoughts and/or suggestions for a first time father-son combo? Cheers

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  • Over 13? Sure. But I’m already sick of seeing jogging strollers on the Esplanade. I’ve even seem people bringing newborn babies out there which I think is just stupid, and potentially dangerous for the baby itself. And before you jump on me about babies living in the desert, blah blah, also realize that the mortality rate in those regions is high,
    And let’s face it… You don’t need to be bringing a newborn or toddler to burning man. Older kids? Sure, maybe… But I think people need to be reasonable about it. Sadly I’ve seen some really stressed out, burnt out, exhausted little kids up there and their parents just assumed they were having a great time. (Parents were tripping, too…)

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  • I have been bringing my son for a few years now, starting at age 4. While reading this, it occurred to me that I have never personally been exposed to anything to which I would not want him to be exposed. Seriously, I have never seen any violence, and I have never seen a full-on sex act, and it’s not like I avert my eyes and hide.

    Not worried.

    Also, he doesn’t go exploring much, so he won’t be in your business trying to catch other people in various acts either.

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  • The kids I have met at Burning man seem to get it. To them it’s just a giant Dr. Seuss book. I’ve seen very responsible parents and a couple who were clearly too impaired to care for their kids. I would say to parents, if you want to bring your kids to Burning Man you need to realize that is what your Burn is going to be about. You are going to need to stay in control and watch those kids.

    I read another blog by a young lady who had grown up on playa. What she had to say really made sense. She said going to Burning Man as a child was great, but as she became an adolescent she was exposed to things she was too young for. Her advice was, by all means bring your kids, but when they get to be twelve or thirteen, take a break until they are old enough to buy their own ticket and go themselves. Preferably when they are mature adults ready for all the adult temptations Burning man has available.

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  • from a previous poster: “I don’t mind kids at any event as long as they are well behaved and respectful (cool, that is).”

    Can I make the same statement about adults? Because I’ve definitely seen a few douchebags on the playa, and all of them were adults.

    I am a mom and my son has been to Burning Man twice: in 2009 at nearly 7 years old, and in 2012 at almost age 10. I didn’t want to take him any younger because it would have been too hard on both of us.

    After the first year, he begged me to take him back.

    In 2012, he was old enough to sit by himself for a bit in Center Camp while we were in line for drinks. When I came over to check on him, he had made friends with a couple of the adults sitting nearby (did yoga with one, and wrote a poem for another).

    Burning Man is not Disneyland. Its participatory. As a parent, my duty is to make sure my son is safe, and that he is respectful of others, and that he is fully engaged in the experience. And that’s what happened.

    I asked my son just now what he would say to people who want to ban kids from Burning Man:

    “I would say that I disagree. Burning Man has some great art, and can increase creativity in kids. I enjoyed the people I met there. And adults can still have fun if kids are there because kids want to have fun too.”

    He is 11, and is going this year.

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  • We brought our seven-year-old daughter to Burning Man in 2007. We were totally unprepared: little food, slept in the car because the tent vacuumed in dust, etc.

    That was us. The kid ran around Kidsville with instant gangs that gathered and disapated on a whim. She slept under the stars on a trampoline in a heap of kids seeking warmth. She came in last in a cursing contest and ran after the water trucks. She was amazed at the art and the people and loved it all.

    If asked, she’ll say, “Yeah. I was at Burning Man.”

    Like a lot if things in childhood, Burning Man was an adventure to be borne, worn and left as a joyful memory. Just one memory in thousands.

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  • The next time somebody pipes up about banning kids, it better be someone who BROUGHT jeir kid(s) to Burning Man and—BECAUSE of the culture and community at Burning Man—jee regrets doing so and can justify banning all kids at Burning Man. (To be clear, if a person did something bad, that has nothing to do with Burning Man: some people do bad things outside Burning Man too, but we don’t ban kids altogether.)

    For the record, I do not have kids and don’t plan on having kids. I also go to Burning Man and sometimes do things I wouldn’t want kids to watch me do. But that is part of the great learning I get from Burning Man: to be confronted with challenging conflicts between my self and the true, non-man-made, non-artificial behavior of the world.

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  • I have been going to Burning Man since my daughter was 6 years old. Every year, she would ask “Can I go to The Playa with you Daddy” and every year, I would say the same thing – “not until you are 16″. I did this not to protect her, but because of my own desire to not alter my experience. For my own reasons, I did not want to be a parent on the playa. I am a full-time parent in the default world and my experience in Black Rock City is “my time”. I have taken her to decompression where we live in Santa Cruz and San Francisco so she had experienced a little of the Burner culture.

    Two years ago, she came to me and said, “I’m 16 now” and of course I took her along. I am involved in a theme camp so I arrive early for the camp set up. She was unable to be a part of this so I purchased tickets for her and a friend, paid their camp fees to be in our camp, and helped them prepare for the playa. I arranged for them to get a ride with two long-time burner friends of mine so I knew they would have a great experience just getting to the playa.

    i worried and fretted a little on the night of their arrival, waiting up to make sure they were taken care of in the early Monday morning hours. I somehow missed their arrival and by the time I caught up with them they had found my truck and camp, gotten their bikes and were headed out into the Black Rock City night! Apparently they did not need me at all.

    This year will be their third year on the playa – the difference being that they need to do it on their own. Of course, I am still going to be there, but they have their own camp, are buying their own tickets and are creating their own experience. They are now adults, and I believe that their experience on the playa has helped them grow into remarkable young women!

    I am fully supportive of children at Burning Man at any age. It is a wondrous incredible experience that can only be enhanced by youth.

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  • After my husband and I experienced his 7th and my 6th Burn, I was ready to bring our daughter(15) and son(12) last year. They have heard us describe our experiences(especially the art), seen the hundreds of pictures, been involved with our planning, and helped with clean-up afterwards(pre-introduction to Playa dust!), they have been begging to go. I needed to wait until I felt it was the right time and last year was it. They soon began coming up with costume ideas. We hit every second hand store in town at least once a month. My husband is in charge of a large theme camp and we had an overwhelming amount of support in regards to our kids. After the first day, with them in their tenth costume change and covered in playa, people were asking them what Burn this was for them, they would reply their First. People were shocked and surprised, thinking they were veteran burners, commenting how they were “natural” burners and seemed to embody the Burning Man Spirit. Needless to say, they will be going again this year. They started planning this years get-ups the minute we got back last year. It was by far my best burn, just being there as a family!! I truly believe Burning Man needs kids, they bring out the beauty and magic that some adults seem to be blinded too! The key is to bring them only when you as a parent feel the time is right and that is different for every family!!!

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  • Hi Grant It’s great that you’re bringing your son to Burning Man this year. I would suggest discussing and acting upon the 10 Principals as a way to connect with each other and the Burning Man community. Always start with the basics. Also pre- BM ask him to watch with you some of the great BM videos out there on YouTube , etc.
    Don’t spectate, Participate! Happy Burning!

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  • The inclusion of the children is reflective of the parent. If you do not expose your under 12 children to the dust storms, watch them as they are your first priority, let them stay up until they are tired, show them to the temple, the Burn and center camp, facilitate their mobility during the day by bikes and carts to get a view of the participatory art, and have ongoing discussions about what is going on around you, then ages about 7 and up are suitable. RV recommended and dust mask on the ready. And I recommend driving into Reno over 2 days or so. There are diminishing returns if the kids is not happy. But it is a wonderland to discover. All of the day things I do like face painting and music listening, then night roller skating under the stars and watching the lamplighters, Then the alien bus tourists that walk around during the burn, Just remember to have a concrete ID system and plan in place for if you get separated. Wear lots of glow and go on wheels with optional kid tow wagon.Then have an indian taco and meet some locals at the stores. Really this a world class experience. Further, I have been with my 2 kids age 7 and 11, and went from Santa Cruz, Yosemite, Vegas, Grand Canyon, Arizona and New Mexico, then Great San Dunes in Colorado, river rafting, cave exploring, hiking, up to Crazy Horse, Devils Tower, Rushmore, then Yellowstone and Cody, up to Calgary Stampede, Banff Horseback riding in the high mountains across rivers, down to Vancouver for high tree climbing and zip lines, span bridges, ocean ferries, and down to volcanoes and redwood sand beaches in 2 months. They gained an appreciation for each other and the safety of Burning Man as a community has been on the whole much more kind hearted and a place you can find what you want and avoid what you need to.

    If you are not up to a dedicating the trip to and for your children at Burning Man, don’t go. It’s not fair to them or you.

    My oldest will be going with me this year.

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  • I absolutely hate kids on the playa. I have been 7 times and I will tell you there is nothing for kids there. Get off soap box. No one likes your kids out there but you.

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