Who Brings Their Kids to Burning Man?

Aug 22 at 6am

Debauchery, giant flaming edifices, dusty palazzo pants, and … children?! When one thinks of the art-sex-drug-desert festival that is Burning Man, kids are not the first things that come to mind. However, there have been children at every Burning Man since its inception in 1986, and the parents who take their kids there have varying reasons for doing so.

As someone who can barely manage parenting in a city with every amenity at my fingertips, I can't imagine taking my child to the desert for anything, much less a weeklong art party. When you throw in the fact that my kid bursts into tears at the sight of the Robot Dance Party dude, the deal is sealed: We are never going to be a Burner Family. Nonetheless, there is a large contingent of people who brave dust storms, exposure to public sex acts, and possible dehydration with their kids at Black Rock City in Nevada each year in the name of art. Or partying.

Is Burning Man a huge art installation, a social experiment, or simply a giant rave? The people who get behind the first two concepts are the ones who believe strongly in bringing their children to the Burn. They pack up their Suburbans, slather on sunscreen, and outfit their kids in tiny wildebeest costumes.

Since the festival is an experiment in freedom and creative expression, there are very few rules and restrictions related to parenting on the playa. So, bring your kids. But please, don’t bring your dog.

“This will always be a family-friendly event,” Burning Man employee Jim Graham stated on NPR recently. Based on their principle of radical inclusion, Burning Man officials “enthusiastically welcome children of all ages to Black Rock City.” Since the festival is an experiment in freedom and creative expression, there are very few rules and restrictions related to parenting on the playa, as long as you understand that you alone are legally responsible for your children. So, bring your kids, they say, as long as you’re willing to supervise them yourself. But please, don’t bring your dog.

Most of the parents I talked to waited until their kids were at least five years old before they took them to Burning Man, but San Francisco mom Mata Smith took her baby when he was five months old. She’s been bringing him back ever since – this year will be the two-year-old’s third round. For that first Burn-with-a-babe, she drove an air-conditioned RV with a full kitchen. It was an uneventful week despite the fact that “people there who see a baby or a small child act like they've never seen one before in their lives,” Smith says. I suppose it could be pretty weird, when you’re skipping around dressed like a deranged version of your child self, to see an actual kid.

Another Burner parent, David Klaus, who has taken his kids (who are now 10 and 12 years old) to Burning Man five times told me, “I wanted my children to see a world without money and commerce and where wealth is not a barrier to connection. I wanted them to see big art and to meet outlandish and wonderful people. I wanted them to dress up in fabulous outfits and to be treated like little rock stars, which is the way it is for kids out there.” It does sound like Burning Man is a non-stop Halloween party for children, where they receive gifts and get rides on art cars galore. So if your child is not totally overstimulated by such things, maybe this would be their jam.

I wanted my children to see a world without money and commerce and where wealth is not a barrier to connection. I wanted them to see big art and to meet outlandish and wonderful people. I wanted them to dress up in fabulous outfits and to be treated like little rock stars, which is the way it is for kids out there.

Burning Man is the kind of all-encompassing experience where you can go the entire week immersing your family in art installations of towering magnitude. And you certainly don’t need drugs to enjoy the extreme costuming or massive fireworks displays. It’s also a community event, where people meet up year after year to perform important life rituals. Family reunions, weddings, and memorials all happen at the festival. If you want your child to be a part of these big events in your life, you’ve got to brave the shirt-cocking dude and getting some dust in their lungs.

If you’re starting to feel like you might have a Burner Kid on your hands, there are a few things that could make the trip a little better. There is an enclosed camping area for families called Kidsville, where each child is issued an ID bracelet so you don’t lose your progeny forever in a maze sculpture. Kidsville offers activities such as Mini Burning Man, choo choo train art cars that take your tot on a tour of the playa, and a more structured environment from the no-rules campsites surrounding it. There is also a program called Black Rock Scouts that hosts “playa-cational field trips, events, and volunteer opportunities.” The scouts get patches for each task they master, such as good deeds, safety lessons, and survival skills. If the Big One ever hits, it may be useful to have a child who can fashion you a dwelling out of dirt and Red Bull cans, so consider signing them up.

You should also read the detailed Family Survival Guide, which includes a bevy of helpful information, such as “Talk to your children about common-sense safety, like not looking into the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon.” Burning Man sounds like the ultimate environment to teach your children the values of intense self-sufficiency and survivalism (although I’m hoping I can invest the same in my child by standing in the bread line at Tartine with her at 4:30 p.m.).

Apparently, it can be a bit of a trip to be pregnant at Burning Man. A friend of mine attended last year, visibly with child. She and her fellow-pregnant friend were putting henna on their bellies when two girls approached them and asked, “We have some kittens and you appear to be lactating … would you consider breastfeeding them?”

Many of the parents I spoke to mentioned that they’ve seen the occasional stressed-out, exhausted little kid who looked poorly attended, but this seems to be the exception to the rule. Most people who take their kids to Burning Man are seeking to share an experience they love and consider sacred with their family, rather than going to a place to offload their kids while they party.

Apparently, it can be a bit of a trip to be pregnant at Burning Man. A friend of mine attended last year, visibly with child. She and her fellow-pregnant friend were putting henna on their bellies when two girls approached them and asked, “We have some kittens and you appear to be lactating … would you consider breastfeeding them?” It was just the kind of absurdly awesome scenario one might expect from Burning Man, and despite being quite possibly the weirdest question ever asked a pregnant person, it sort of made my friend’s week.

Children 12 and under are free, so if you’re convinced, there’s still time to add your kid like a little stowaway on your art car. Just don’t forget the mini dust masks.

Top photo by Bart Teeuwisse, above photo by Mata Smith

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