The Experience of a 12-Time, 15 Year-Old Burner

Furthering the dialogue about Kids at Burning Man that Caveat resurrected in his post Growing Up Burning, I’d like to present the perspective of a 15 year old Burner who has attended the event 12 times. Her name is Sydney, and she’s no longer attending the Burn while she’s in high school (apparently, it’s a big deal to miss the first week of high school), but has plans to return as soon as she is able.

Sydney in 2002. Photo by her dad, CTP.
Sydney in 2002. Photo by her dad, CTP.

I’ve known Sydney since she was 8 years old, and I’ve always been impressed at how easily she seemed to adapt on playa. She had an ever-rotating cast of friends who were delighted to take her on adventures, entire camps that considered her their mascot, and a camp-family who adored her and tolerated her terrible manicures.

I sat down with her recently (blue hair, cool glasses, brace on her knee from a snowboarding accident) to ask about her experiences growing up a Burner. The following interview is edited for clarity only based on the transcript of our discussion. The words are hers. Questions in bold are mine.

Is there a good time for kids to start going to Burning Man? Should you take them when they’re babies, or wait until they’re a certain age?

I started going when I was 1 year old, and I went all the way until I was 12. For me it was just a normal thing; my brain had adjusted. That’s how I grew up. The more that kids only see the real world before going to Burning Man, they might not take in the deeper meaning of the event and might think it’s just a party in the desert. Meeting all these great people and see all this interesting art … it really affected me.

I think a lot of my art interest comes from Burning Man, all the kinds of art I do. But I’ve also met a bunch of amazing people at Burning Man, and I think that changed me in terms of experiencing lots of things. I’ve done so many things I wouldn’t have been able to do in Oakland.

What are some of the best things you remember doing at Burning Man, that you could only have done at Burning Man?

I really enjoyed volunteering in the Black Rock Boutique. I got to help sort clothes, but I also got to take the clothes I wanted! Getting to see the Man and the Temple burn are really big parts of Burning Man that I’ll always remember. I also got to meet PeeWee Herman.

Growing up at Burning Man and seeing people naked, in costumes, cross-dressing…does that translate to real life at all?

I see pretty much everything as normal. If I see a guy in a skirt, I pretty much don’t think anything except that he chose to wear a skirt that day … like I got up and chose to put on these socks this morning. I’m not going to get judged for wearing these socks, why should he get judged for wearing a skirt?

Does this kind of acceptance you’ve learned at Burning Man help you out in high school, something that is a traditionally difficult time for people?

It makes it easier and harder: I’m really open-minded, but when I see that other people aren’t as open-minded, and I can’t MAKE them be open-minded, it’s frustrating. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be so open. My friends are also really open, though, and I learn from them and they learn from me. We’ll go up to strangers in Berkeley and just start having a conversation with them — I think that Burning Man has helped me do this. But Burning Man has also made me a bit closed-minded towards “average” people — I’ll look at them and think “ooo, they’re not going to be cool, I have to find the weird, cool people” … but then I imagine the normal people are also thinking the same thing about us. So I talk to them anyway.

We’re open to hanging out with whoever. My friend group has a punk, two hippies, and then my friend and I who aren’t … anything in particular … but we’re all just coming together and having a good time. Our differences don’t matter.

Were there any downsides to growing up at Burning Man?

I was always the weird kid in class when I was 7 … short dyed hair, glasses, braces, I was the underdog. I was bullied for a couple of years for being weird. The bullies didn’t like that. I wouldn’t blame that on Burning Man though, it’s just more my specific experience, and my willingness to be a weird kid.

When you were out exploring Burning Man, were you treated well by strangers?

Everyone was really nice to me. If I was biking along, people would come invite me to do things, I’d just start talking to people in line. People would always ask me about being a kid at Burning Man — I got a lot of attention for it. I felt like the VIP of Burning Man!

Did they seem to enjoy the fact that there were kids at Burning Man?

YES! When I was little, I’d tell them “I’ve been to Burning Man 7 times!” and they’d say things like “it’s my first time! And you’re 7 and you’ve been to Burning Man a lot more than me!” I felt super cool for that. I’d talk to someone who looked like a hard-core Burner and they’d tell me it was their 3rd time, and I’d say “it’s my 12th burn”. I had a lot of confidence for having gone to Burning Man so many times. It was my place.

What about the people who say that Burning Man is not as cool as it used to be?

There’s a lot more people recently who have been going just for the party, and not for the art. It’s an ART FESTIVAL. If you just come to party and get wasted, that’s not what Burning Man is about. If you’re seeing it as a big party … it sort of is, but it’s an ART party. It’s not just for coming to drink.

Is there anything else you’d want to say to people attending Burning Man?

Take risks. Don’t take BIG risks, but take … a good amount of risks. If you’re going to go to Burning Man, be open-minded. Push your boundaries. If you’re not comfortable with something, try it anyway. Explore, experiment, try new things. Get to know yourself.

Sydney is a high school student in Oakland, California.
Brody is a year-round member of the Art Department who likes ponies and is searching for someone to teach her how to chainsaw-carve wooden bears.

About the author: Brody Scotland

Brody Scotland is a native Californian and recovering shy person who enjoys hugs and snacks. Brody first attended Burning Man in 2004, found out that she doesn't actually know how to “go to Burning Man,” and started volunteering in 2005. Her mission in life is to increase the amount of happiness in the world, and she would like someone to teach her how to carve a wooden bear with a chainsaw. These two things are not necessarily related.

14 Comments on “The Experience of a 12-Time, 15 Year-Old Burner

  • Affinity says:

    Fabulous! My favorite quote:
    “Take risks. Don’t take BIG risks, but take … a good amount of risks. If you’re going to go to Burning Man, be open-minded. Push your boundaries. If you’re not comfortable with something, try it anyway. Explore, experiment, try new things. Get to know yourself.”

    I cannot imagine knowing that at her age. I have several friends who bring their kids and I can see how it broadens their life and experiences, and fun!

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  • Joe says:

    I just don’t like kids at Burning Man. When I’m out there being totally Mad Max, thinking about all the cool stories I’m going to tell my workmates back home, I bums me out to see kids having more fun than me. When I’m puking my brains out at sunrise, the last thing I want to see are a bunch of dustrats being more hardcore then me. And they don’t even do coke or ecstasy, they play life on easy mode. I fucking WORK for it!

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  • RightOn says:

    “If you just come to party and get wasted, that’s not what Burning Man is about.”

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  • WendiVC says:

    Great interview. She says a lot of things my 11 year old says, who has been going since she was 3. Kids who grow up being both exposed to the wonders of this environment while simultaneously being protected from the dangers of it learn to be more open minded and accepting than any other people I’ve ever met!

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  • Franko says:

    the wisdom of youth. she said a lot of really insightful things that so many people are still figuring out about burning man, and also some things i needed to hear. thanks!

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  • brigitte says:

    quelle magnifique et grandiose sagesse ….
    ne serai.ce pas merveilleux et si simple que toutes les institutions educatives prennent le meme chemin pour ‘l.apprentissage d’un amour et d’une comprehention universelle?
    comme nous l/explique cette enfant?
    Bravo et merci pour cette lecture enrichissante

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  • Shenanigans says:

    This one time at burning man, way back in my virgin year…
    I was hanging in centre camp during the heat of the afternoon, leaning against a seat, camp mates chatting away nearby with people I didn’t know yet, and something swats my hand. I pulled it back quickly, and glanced over to find a big eyed smiling cherub waiting for me to react. Dusted out, dyed hair, fully equipped with goggles and bandana. (Could easily have been that ^ one.) Her people were chatting nearby, peripherally aware with out paying attention in the way that parents do.
    I put my hand back and looked away, and she tagged it again. I moved it to one side, and she waited till I looked away before tagging it again. I moved it to a post (where she’d have to step up on the seat) and she tagged it again.
    I don’t think we talked in more than smiles and play faces, but it always stands out as one of those interactions that we only allow ourselves on playa.

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  • Emily says:

    She is going to be one force to be reckoned with, within this world. So glad to have her perspective and being on this planet. Thanks, Sydney. Take risks. On it.

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  • Bibi says:

    Inspiring story :) I have two children myself and have always wondered if it is a good idea to bring them to Burningman…I think it’s time.

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  • Milt says:

    Just wondering whether Sydney’s family camped in a tent or were in an RV during her first Burning Man when she was a one year old. I can see having an RV for a one year old, but a hot, dusty tent might lead to a very cranky kid.

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  • $teven Ra$pa says:

    If we are truly to live up to our potential for positive social transformation as a community, it’s people like Sydney who will lead the way! Over 19 years I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing many little people grow into well adjusted, thoughtful, highly competent young adults–and they are all marvelous! Kids don’t “need” Burning Man, but they sure seem to thrive and become better people and leaders as a result of growing up with the experience and the lessons that come with it. Thank you for sharing your story and perspective on people, Sydney! You’re FANTASTIC and definitely “get it.” HOORAY!

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  • Cooky says:

    Sydney! You just become my new favorite burner. I hope we get to meet someday while doing dangerous but not too dangerous stuff. You Rock!

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  • Frida Bee says:

    I think I met this girl in 2003. She was camped with a bike repair camp and I was with the tea house next door. She called herself Ladybug Butterfly. She was 5 or so at the time. You are very well spoken Sydney, thank you for sharing!

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  • CTP says:

    Frida, this is the very same Sydney! My camp was Borrachos Y Bicicletas for a good many years. We loved having you next door :)

    $teven, Sydney was with me at the birthday party I said hi to you at on playa last week – she was the girl with the bright red hair. Sydney turned 16 last Sunday on playa.

    Milt, the first couple years we rented an RV, and then I bought a small old trailer that we took, and now we use tents. Yes, you are very correct, the RV was very very useful with one so small.

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