The 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.
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.