The kids (at Burning Man) are all right

Photo courtesy of Black Rock Kids

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)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

21 Comments on “The kids (at Burning Man) are all right

  • factoid says:

    Some comments I’ve made in the past on this topic that they still hold true:

    Regarding kids at Burning Man: To all the kid-haters and the would-be nannies who worry about their precious little sensibilities being ravaged by sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – settle the hell down.

    Parents are responsible for their kids’ preparation and their experiences. The parents I know have this well in hand.

    The vast majority of BRC’s smutty content and activities flew WAY over our kids’ heads the first two years, and anything that didn’t could be gently explained away as “grownups are weird” or “wow, looks like those people are really drunk.”

    We gave them each the actual Birds ‘n’ Bees talk at a good age (I filled my son in atop a ziggurat at 4:30 and Esplanade in ’08) and afterward, we remained open to questions and discussions, and occasionally explained that, well, sometimes grownups do weird things in the name of sex. They get it, and they’ve moved on with that very understanding to enjoy the burn every single time.

    They remain inquisitive and wise beyond their years, and after seeing them work (nearly) tirelessly alongside us to build, run and strike our camp and our mutant vehicle during five burns, they are the Best Burners Ever, and still declare BRC to be their Favorite Place on Earth.

    Maid Marian and Larry Harvey have been on record from even before BM reached the playa as saying that kids and families have a place at Burning Man. Kidsville is now the largest village in BRC, with more than 2000 residents. We are raising all of our kids to be strong, self-reliant, creative, generous and resilient – and good Burners to boot.

    Got a problem with ‘em? Just think of them as little shirtcockers and look the other way.

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  • tina says:

    “They remain inquisitive and wise beyond their years”

    while i agree with your sentiments towards children on the playa, they are not inquisitive and wise beyond their years. they are children – normal children, who are inquisitive and wise equal to their years. they are not special because their parents choose to bring them to burning man.

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  • Thermal says:

    The concept of families & kids may well fly out the window in the new age of ticket lotteries and STEP when a cardholder can only request 2 tickets max, and families may not have the luck of multiple ticketholders in a family winning enough times at the lottery to get everyone tickets.
    So the families and kids concept may now be a moot point.
    Another reason to go back to first-come-first-serve and id-based-ticketing.

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  • Thermal says:

    sorry, I meant that to be:
    families may not have the luck of multiple CARDHOLDERS in a family winning enough times at the lottery to get everyone tickets.

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  • G says:

    Help me here. When I see grade school age kids running around with no parent in sight, as I have in BRC many times, it is hard not to think that there are some unconcerned, careless parents somewhere.
    Another instance that made me uncomfortable; I was sitting by some sort of art installation one night, and a mom and dad came by on bikes with a tyke in one of those fabric mesh covered bike trailers for tykes. Poor kid was sitting about 6 inches off of the playa, there was some moderate wind blowing dusty ground blizzards across the surface. I heard a very congested little human coughing in that trailer. Rightly or wrongly, I felt some disgust and contempt for the parents, and sympathy for their little one.
    I would suppose these two experiences point to a discomfort with certain parenting styles rather than disapproval of children being there, but I am putting it out here anyway.

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  • Clarity says:

    Part of being a parent is knowing that you really can’t tell other parents how to raise their kids. Does it stop them from doing so? Not always.

    This will be my 5th non-kid Burn. The first 4 were with playa-kinder in tow. It taught me to be an Uber-Burner. It’s radical self reliance to the nth power with n being the number of kids you have plus one.

    It’s not easy. But neither is being a parent.

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  • Mitch says:

    I’m generally not crazy about children — at least as grown in modern America. So far, though, all the kids I’ve seen at Burning Man are well-behaved, responsive to their environment (no matter how weird), and able to hold rational conversations with adults. Dunno if it’s Burner culture or actually being at Burning Man that makes them super-self-reliant by current standards (and more or less normal by mine), but if I had to ban a wide swath of Burners from attending, kids would be pretty far down the list.

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  • Joshua says:

    I’m wholly in support of kids at burns. My point of view is that it’s not a community if kids aren’t there–it’s just a party. And parties are awesome! But I expect more from my burns. That’s one reason why I don’t attend or participate in burns that aren’t all-ages.

    The Arizona situation is really tough, and, to my mind, it’s unique, because it’s the first time I’ve ever heard of an actual ultimatum being posed. In every other case of a burn going 18+ or 21+ that I am aware of, the motivation has been unspecified fears about what might happen. I worry that this situation will further fan those flames.

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  • Kat says:

    As a child-free Burner, I actually feel compelled to encourage that kids still be allowed to attend Burning Man. In most cases, like the movie theater situation, I really prefer to not deal with children. I think the reason that Burning Man is the one place where I have no qualms about having to deal with running across children is because of the kind of environment it is.

    Kids can get lost on playa. For a person to come out ot Burning Man and literally let thier kids go willy-nilly out there would just be stupid. So, it encourages parents to really think about if little Timmy should be brought that year. Same goes for the nudity. Although I have the default-world sourced knee-jerk reaction to cover myself up when I walk down the playa nude and spot a child…. it actually has never been a problem. I think most parents really think twice about bringing kids to the playa in regards to what thier kid will inevitably be exposed to (i.e. things like nudity, the controversial/satirical art pieces, adult art, etc) . It seems that, if they do decide to get their children a ticket, they understand that they are going to have to meet the event halfway and actually be responsible for thier kids well being and to be active in discussions with their kid should they venture out of somewhere like Kidsville.

    In the default world, parents seldom do this anymore. Now, I….the BDSM enjoying person who really doesnt tote herself as a family friendly person…. is the one ALMOST 100% RESPONSIBLE for a child being exposed to something that the parents are against. There is no balance between my responsibility and the parents responsibility on parenting/rearing their children. So, maybe that is why I feel the way I do about children in the default world vs my improved acceptance of their presence on playa.

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  • not a lot of things are better than seeing a child being completely free like everyone else on the playa:

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  • Rob says:

    “Community” is something that exists 24/7/365. But that doesn’t mean kids have to be present at every single activity or event engaged in by adults.

    What’s wrong with having a week-long “party” without kids?

    There are places I would rather not encounter children. This is one.

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  • Thermal says:

    in response to “Part of being a parent is knowing that you really can’t tell other parents how to raise their kids. Does it stop them from doing so? Not always.”
    ? what is the purpose of this comment, are you saying people shouldn’t say anything when a parent is clearly failing at their job??

    Sometimes people SHOULD step in and tell a parent to do better, in fact, there is an obligation to say something in some cases. This is throughout the world, not just at burning man. I was at the grocery store and witnessed a much older&bigger son wailing on a much younger&smaller son. This was RIGHT NEXT to the “mother”. I think the older son’s elbow was probably hitting her mid-blow, they were that close. She didn’t bat an eye, just stared into the abyss. That was no regular beating either, that was full-on abuse and the little kid was in clear distress.
    So, the lesson is: Don’t be afraid to tell a parent they are doing a crappy job, people!
    At BMan or anywhere.

    How’s that for “clarity”?

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  • harinama says:

    I’m always happy to see children at BRC. It shows that it appeals to all ages.

    I do worry sometimes, however, if the parents are as focused on the child’s welfare as they should be…

    I’ll never forget seeing a 3yr old go up and down the WEDGE alone a dozen times a few years ago, while his folks danced mindlessly, often out of sight at the bottom. He was fearless, but i was scared for him!

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  • Lolipop says:


    “How’s that for “clarity”?”

    it’s clear that people like you should be avoided.

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  • JV says:

    I’ve got 3 kids, haven’t brought them to the playa yet simply because BM is my one child-free week a year. However, I love seeing kids out there. As another commenter mentioned, it’s just a party if not everyone is invited. What I love about BM is that it’s not just a party, it’s a community with representatives from every stage of life. Sure, I’ve seen what I thought was irresponsible parenting on the playa, but not nearly as often as I’ve seen the same in the default world.

    Also, I’ve never seen a child in a camp or area that is engaging in clearly adult-only behavior. People on both sides are pretty aware of those kinds of boundaries. As for the nudity, well, everyone has different ideas about that, but I highly doubt a kid is gonna be damaged by seeing naked people. I’ve brought my kids to the SF Decompression and while they make comments and giggle a little to themselves, they’ve already been taught that bodies are bodies, some people like to show more than others.

    I agree with Thermal that if you see a situation where a parent is clearly being irresponsible with their offspring, you should step up and say something. That goes for on and off the playa. We’re a community of humans wherever we go, and sometimes people make mistakes. A quick reminder can help, even if the person reacts negatively. Hell, I’ve needed reminders in my parenting life, and the times I’ve gotten them stick with me and inform future behavior.

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  • Mutant vehicle owners of America says:

    Kidsville will be empty this year. How many families do you think could have received enough tickets through the lottery scam for a family of 2, 3, or 4? My guess is none.

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  • Steve says:

    I’m not a big fan of children at the event mostly because some parents seem to be trying to redefine radical self expression and what should and should not be allowed on the playa. I’ve heard some parents suggest that what was acceptable before be hidden away or no longer permitted because while during their early years of burning it was fun but now the event needs to be more family friendly because they want to bring their kids. Something like Bianca’s Smut Shack would never happen again.

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  • Jenn says:

    I always carry condoms on the playa because, well, you never know…

    Whenever I see a kid doing something I’m not fond of, I look at the parents and toss a condom at em and say, ‘Use it next time!”

    This shuts them up real good, and has the added benefit of teaching their kids about contraception and safe sex.

    This is why I always try to camp next to Kidsville.

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  • MoonBunny says:

    I have camped at BRC’s largest camp, Kidsville.
    The parents that I have met there have been nothing less than responsible and caring.
    To see so many people working together, sharing, and playing together, old and young alike is more enriching to me than some of the other activities that take place on the playa during the burn.
    If hedonism is your only goal, then perhaps you do not want to see children and young people enjoying the art and richness of a unique environment.
    As for myself, I can well imagine that you can enjoy yourself and I can enjoy my family and friends, and if I feel that I’d rather run around playing squirt guns some where else while you do your thing, well, there’s room for that too.

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  • Tracey TieF says:

    We’ve Burned these past 2 years with our daughter, now 6 and will be in Kidsville again this year. She thinks that Burning Man is the most fun she has all year. What’s fun if you aren’t into sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (or dub step)? Trampolines, light art, temples, playing all day, being dusty, getting gifted freezies, talking to bunnies and faeries, riding art cars, laying tricks, ball pits, tents, face paint, tutus, hoola hoops…. in fact, it’s hard to get out of Kidsville sometimes!

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  • Shannon says:

    I have taken my son nude to burning man since he was 9. My husband and i were raised as nudists and have raised him likewise. He is now 15 and still attends burning man nude each year. It is always his choice and he we always bring additional clothing for him which so far has always gone unworn. Our son has no issues about the people around him and any questions he has we answer straight forward and honestly. We have encountered a very rare few other burners who felt it necessary to give us a ‘lesson’ in correct parenting for our son. But they have only ever had their say and we explain he has chosen this for himself and they have either let it go or on 3 occasions now sat with our son and us and had an open discussion about our experience here and got first hand our sons view of the burning man world. Our son loves burnig man incidentally, loves the art, mix of cultures and mostly the people he has met. Some of whom we have no only kept in contact with but have even caught up with them back here in the default world.

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