Burning Man festival -- should kids be there?

Sacramento BeeSeptember 3, 2013 

Reno -- With camps named Slutgarden, Spanky’s Wine Bar and Homomojitos, the annual countercultural festival Burning Man offers a wide assortment of adult experiences.

But a modest yet passionate group of parents — many from Northern California — also argue that the temporary city in the desert can be a transformative learning laboratory for children.

Burning Man, which concluded Labor Day and drew more than 60,000 people from across the globe to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, celebrates music, art and independent thinking in communal, free-spirited environment.

While organizers do not track the number of children who attend the weeklong happening held 90 miles north of Reno, experience shows the vast majority of the “city” denizens are adults.

Nevertheless, Burning Man regulars Tony Guerra and Karina O’Conner, of Nevada City, said they never considered leaving their son Jai at home. The 8-year-old has come to the event each year of his life.

Guerra, who attended the festival for a 20th time this year, said bringing his son enhanced his enjoyment of the experience.

“We’ve gained at an appreciation for the morning sunrise,” said Guerra, who with his wife runs the Earth Guardians informational camp, offering lessons in being environmentally friendly.

The majority of parents who bring their kids to Burning Man stay in an area known as Kidsville, one of the festival’s 600 or so themed camps where like-minded people share shade structures and other resources.

While making clear the collective is not a baby-sitting service, Kidsville organizers said the area offers a youth-appropriate environment with activities such as trampolines. Since it was started in 1999, the camp has grown to 600 people annually.

Kether Axelrod, a Colorado schoolteacher who serves as the “mayor” of Kidsville, sees the festival as positive for force in young lives. “My girl is a great example of raising your kids at Burning Man,” she said. “Burning Man made (her) extraordinary.”

This year, Axelrod’s daughter – an accomplished slam poet – interrupted her attendance streak of 12 consecutive years because she’s starting college.

Patrick and Sally Dunne, from Lafayette, brought their kids Jack, 8, Mia, 6, and Danny, 4, for the first time this year. The couple said they hope the event has been as inspiring for their children as it has been for them.

Sally Dunne said Burning Man has helped her become more open and accepting to all walks of life.

Jack, for his part, said he enjoys the dust storms and “art cars” – creatively customized vehicles, such as a giant, rolling, metal octopus that shoots fire from its tentacles – that have become a featured part of the festival.

“(Burning Man) changes people,” said Patrick Dunne, who grew up in Ireland. “You could meet the president of Goldman Sachs. He won’t be wearing a suit. He’ll be wearing burner clothes.”

The event encourages participants to live by 10 principles, including “radical inclusion,” “radical self-reliance,” “leave no trace,” “participation,” “decodification” and “radical self-expression.”

Outside of the annual burning of a 90-foot effigy structure known as “the man,” most festival activities – from a skating rink to juggling lessons – are put on by different camps. Part of the Burning Man experience is sharing with others; some attendees “gift” hugs or informational sessions, others alcohol.

Melissa Vennel, of Sacramento, said friends have questioned her and her husband’s decision to bring their daughter, Zoey, who is in elementary school.

“It’s 50,000 people (but) not everyone is here to drink and party,” said Melissa Vennel. “I don’t consider Burning Man any less safe than any city.”

Vennel said she noted where the sexually themed camps are and avoids them.

“There are parts of Burning Man I wouldn’t take my kids,” she said. “There are parts of Sacramento I wouldn’t take my kids.”

She said sure her daughter will be exposed to some things she wouldn’t be in a normal environment (think people dressed in bunny suits) but that is the point.

“I hope she gets a sense of creativity,” Melissa Vennel said. “We can break the rules.”

As Vennel and her daughter played a game of Uno under a shade structure at Kidsville on Tuesday afternoon, her husband, Rich, supervised as two 18-year-olds and two younger kids assembled a geodesic climbing structure.

Kidsville is also the hub for the Black Rock Scouts program, which helps young people to meet artists, learn the meaning of the 10 principles and find volunteer opportunities.

While many Burning Man attendees seem willing to tone down their language and behavior when kids are around, some say the event is no place for children.

Joseph Pettegrew, who serves as the “mayor” of Spanky’s Wine Bar, said Burning Man should be a 21-and-over event. He said he was annoyed at having to check IDs at his camp’s free bar, where organizers decided not to display its “spank-o-matic” contraption – a pneumatic spanking machine – where it could be viewed by people (and kids) passing by.

“Look at the headaches it has caused me,” Pettegrew said. “As the leader of camp, not only can the bartender go to jail (for serving minors), (I) can too.”

Burning Man has a law enforcement presence: dozens of officers from the Bureau of Land Management and the local county sheriffs department patrolling the temporary city.

Susan Porter, a San Francisco clinical social worker who attended the event, said kids aren’t likely to be harmed by going to Burning Man but questioned why adults would want to bring them there.

She cautioned parents not to use drugs or drink in excess around their kids.

“The one thing parents need to be prepared for is kids asking questions,” Porter said.

Harley DuBois, one of the event’s founders, said she brings her daughter each year and that Burning Man wouldn’t be a community without children.

“This isn’t just a party,” she said. “This is experiment in community. This is a cultural movement. I want my daughter to be part of it.”

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