On the barren flatlands of the Nevada desert, children ages 5 to 14 weave unnoticed between the rampant drug use and nudity. The children of Burning Man, and their nearby parents, don’t seem to mind the NC-17-rated madness.
Why? Because these children are on a scientific exploration. The Black Rock Scouts, Burning Man’s version of the Cub Scouts, roam the five-mile campus earning badges in astronomy, sharing, and artistic expression.
“The best time I have with my daughter is at Burning Man,” gushes Black Rock Scouts director, Jay Marlette.
Yes, you’re reading this right. Burning Man, a 10-day interactive arts festival better known for outlandish partying and Silicon Valley billionaires, is a family destination for many long-time participants, who plan a vacation to Black Rock City, just as any typical family might plan a trip to Disney World.
Why would any sane parent bring impressionable young minds to a desert full of 70,000 partiers? Marlette says that “the idea is the kids will grow up to be good burners.”
The temporary city of Burning Man has always been a sort of techno-utopian experiment and was founded by two parents to teach their children the values of inclusiveness, open-mindedness, and creativity.
“We’re pro-family,” says Burning Man founder, Larry Harvey. Harvey brought his own son to the very first event in 1986 and chooses not to charge tickets for children under 12 because he believes “a culture isn’t authentic unless it’s multi-generational.”
The festival itself is more of a large-scale social experiment, of which the wild parties are one aspect. All 70,000 temporary citizens are expected to supply their own camping needs and something to gift the wider community: food, a giant interactive structure, or a mind-bending experience.
Indeed, all of the parents seem to think that Burning Man was a deceivingly educational place, where children were too busy having fun to know they were learning important life lessons. “It’s one of the most creative environments they’ve ever encountered and they want their children to be creative,” Harvey says.
Burning Man is the playground of Silicon Valley’s most venerable companies. From Google to Tesla, engineers see a temporary city of creatives as an ideal place to test the limits of innovation. Google’s co-founders reportedly hired their chairman, Eric Schmidt, in part because he was a loyal Burner.
According to Stanford Professor of Communications, Fred Turner [PDF], Google sent a plane to take aerial photos of the city in what became an early pilot to Google Maps back in 2006.
It’s not just Google: Tesla and SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk, supposedly brought an early version of a Tesla car in 2007.
Like their grown up Silicon Valley brethren, the Black Rock Scouts treat Burning Man like a scientific mecca. For instance, to earn a coveted badge in scientific exploration, the Black Rock Scouts traverse the windstorm-wracked planes to star gaze with a camp of professional astrophysicists.
Last year I joined an eager group of younger scouts on a late afternoon trip to the camp of the Bureau of Land Management, a local agency charged with helping the festival minimize its impact on the local environment.
The agency did not really prepare the kind of kid-friendly event I had anticipated, opting for a rather dry lecture on desert species biodiversity. Surprisingly enough, it managed to keep the scouts’ rapped attention.
“Isn’t that supposed to be heat?” said one boy — no older than 12 — who was paying close enough attention to notice a missing “t,” tucked away in a slide about the survival tactics of the area’s aquatic shrimp species.
Burning Man University was in full effect and the children were eager to learn. Suffice to say, I did not expect this.
There’s a lot of nudity at Burning Man. Many Burners don’t just go naked — they celebrate it. It’s not uncommon to see a roving art car in the shape of a giant phallus spitting fire out of the tip.
Parents here argue that once you take the taboo out of nakedness, kids stop caring.
“My children just don’t care. It’s a non-issue” says Dawn LaPierre, the coordinator of KidsVille, one of Burning Man’s largest umbrella theme camps — housing about 110 smaller camps, each with multiple families.
But what happens when kids ask questions about a giant penis, as one would expect them to do.
“ ‘Yeah that’s a boys thingy and that’s pretty much the gist of our conversation’,” explains Marlette, who is used to defending his decision to judgmental parents.
“I don’t think any person on earth has been corrupted by a giant penis car,” concludes Harvey.
At least one parent expressed less concern for elementary-aged tots, who are too young to even conceptualize sex, but more for teenagers entering their impressionable pubescent years.
“It is a very sexually charged environment,” says long-time burner, Bill Gillman. “It also probably sets an unrealistic expectation of what it means to interact with whoever you’re attracted to.”
Gilman says he’s going to feel out his children’s evolving reaction to Burning Man as they age and make a decision whether to eventually bring them back.
Yet, it was the teens themselves who showed unexpected self-awareness about the appropriateness of adult-themed content.
“No, it’s not harder to instill the fact that, like, drugs and sex and stuff is not appropriate until you’re old enough to make your own choices,” interrupted a 14-year-old child of the Thaolkes, a suburban southern California family who brought their entire clan to the Burn.
My question was actually posed to his parents, yet the teenage Thoalke felt compelled to argue that drugs and sex are just as available at Burning Man as they are in his high school.
His parents, Chris and Tina, seem to think that the display of lascivious behavior provided an opportunity to talk about adult choices in a way not available back in suburbia.
“Every lesson you would try to instill in your child at home is out here,” said Chris Thoalke, “I want to be part of the discussion on those choices.”
His wife, Tina, chimed in, noting that at Burning Man, she could say “ ‘Hey William, look at that stupid high person over there,’ ” continuing, “they get to see consequences about things they keep hearing about.”
“I always wanted to share this with my children” explains Bill Gilman, who brought his first child when he turned 4 — old enough for the nascent family to share a bonding experience at the festival.
Burning Man has managed to construct a rather oddly enthusiastic culture of giving. The city functions on a gift economy, where both money and bartering are fiercely discouraged. Instead, everyone is expected to take joy by gifting something for free: art, food, or an experience.
For instance, Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow billionaire Dustin Moskovitz, handed out free grilled cheese sandwiches two years ago at their theme camp, lovingly named “Om Skillet.”
True to form, Gillman and his son crowdsourced a peanut butter and jelly kart on Kickstarter.
“We are also moving to Kidsville this year, and as part of Black Rock Scouts, burner kids can earn a PB&J badge by grabbing their moms and dads and taking the cart and buggy anywhere on playa to serve the gooey goodness to the masses,” wrote Gilman, on the successful crowdfunding page that raised over $4,000 to construct the vehicle.
For the many parents who espouse the Burning Man ethos of curiosity and altruism, the festival is a unique place to instill those same values in the next generation. This, Harvey concludes, is why so many parents choose Burning Man as their vacation of choice.
“I like Burning Man better than Disney World,” says 11-year old Lucy Marlette, who was busy earning her photography badge during our brief talk. “Burning Man has a million different things and every year it’s different. You have no idea what your experience is going to be like. But at Disney World, everything is pre-manufactured.”