Parenting tips from a teen who grew up going to festivals

Guest post by Jessica Smith-Heron

Among my peers it is rare to find child-parent relationships with total-honesty policies, where the child is given much more self-responsibility than in the majority of child-parent relationships and the parents aren’t afraid to speak openly of how life is equal parts pain and pleasure.

It’s not often you’ll find a mother who, when their child reaches the volatile and nutty teenage years, will sit a child down and say, “Look, I know you’re going to be experimenting with drugs soon. That’s fine — I only ask that you try whatever drug you want to try with me first, so we can make sure you have a good experience and are in a safe place and I can take care of you.”

Some would say (and it’s these people who also argue that sex education would lead to higher rates of teen pregnancy) that giving a child such carte blanche access or permission is inappropriate or even abusive. I disagree. As a now seventeen year old, on the cusp of adult life, liberty, and the freedom to pay taxes or be tried as an adult, I will say that having an alternative upbringing is equal parts a blessing and a curse … but definitely very educational.

Modern industrialized society has demanded for generations that when a woman becomes a mother, she stop whatever independent life she had been creating and settle down to the task of rearing littles. This belief dates back to the concepts of the genders’ separate spheres and republican motherhood, however these beliefs have definitely been challenged and nowadays it’s generally acceptable for a woman to have a career as well as be a mother.

But to be a burner and a mother? Or a psychofunkodiscodelic occasionally cross-dressing, spiritually expanding, experimental, wanderer at heart and still be a mother? Or even just wanting to feel like a normal human being and be a mother? That’s when it becomes difficult to balance a child’s need for a mother and a mother’s need as a human being to let off a little steam and maintain a social life, the societal microscope notwithstanding.

Here then follows a handy list for those parents who want to drag the little ones along on life’s path — stopping for nothing and no one and doing it their own way:

  • It’s always better to bring the kidlet with you. Otherwise, and I speak from experience, they feel a little abandoned and a little panicked. Often, having an off-beat childhood experience is really formative for the kid. My friend Jason and his family lived on a boat for his younger years, traveling the globe. Don’t sacrifice traveling and doing what you’ve always dreamed: compromise!
  • Go to kid-friendly events. Involve them: Help them make their own costumes, let them help decorate your space. Or, do as some offbeat mamas and papas have done and create a kid-zone yourself. Make your individual space into the community kid-space, which leads to tip number three:
  • Find parents like you, so kids can run in packs and look out for one another. At music festivals like the Oracle Gatherings and Phoenix Fest, I saw my mother occasionally to eat and talk and chill and at certain times to check in, but mostly I ran wild as a camp child with the other children. The younglings would be cared for by the older kids and often all the children of the encampment would run together as a single herd, whether they numbered three or twenty.
  • Be like a boy scout and be prepared: provide food, shelter and minor entertainment for a child to fall back on and it will be alright. Never underestimate the power of bringing a laptop with movies on it. Instill a joy of reading in your child. Set up the kid-zone yourself, somewhere children can frolic in comfort. Make kids and chill, kid-friendly environs the newest, coolest party accessory.
  • No matter what — tuck them in. Just outside the thin walls of the tent, the bass is still going and the lights are casting neon shadows and perhaps you have a lover waiting for you — but all the kid is waiting for and listening for is your voice and your kiss goodnight. If you have night-time rituals like story time or songs, keep them; maintain some sort of basic structure.
  • Instill a sense of morals and street-smarts. Explain stranger danger. My father was always very adamant about stranger danger, yet, and this ties back to tips 2 and 3, I never experienced any sense of danger or felt threatened at any event. Generally speaking, loving communities tend to sense and keep less-soulful people out and away. It really does take a village. But make your child’s safety and self-reliance assured — if you educate your children and make sure they have good instincts, they’ll most likely be fine. Still, tip number 3 is tried and true: let them run in a pack and you can go off and have your fun too. Just make sure your child has a good sense of street-smarts before releasing them into the greater playas of the world.
  • If you’re going to do drugs, don’t do them in sight of your kidlet until the child has had drug education independent from you; definitely don’t partake in the illicits during playtime if you have a partner or ex-partner who isn’t okay with you smoking jane around Jane. As far as beating the education system to the punch and educating your kid young about alcohol and marijuana — you’re welcome to give it a try as long as your babydaddy/babymama is on board, just keep in mind that kids have no concept of censorship: what you tell little Benji about booze, he will tell his friends when he’s with them next. Kids like to show off knowledge. Wait until they’re ten or older to have that chat with them if you don’t want the soccer moms out for your hide.
  • Put kids first: if they need you, take care of it. When it comes down to it, there are going to be times when the movies, the wolf pack of kids, and the environment aren’t what the kid wants. They just want to rest for a moment, and where they feel the safest is at your side. Let them snuggle up to you for a few quiet moments, even if the people around you are giving you the “get that child out of here” look.
  • Be patient. Children are crazy, egotistical creatures. As someone who’s just come from this developmental phase, children don’t understand (or really don’t care) that they’re interrupting your conversation because they’re exhausted and cold, and they expect or need you to do something about it. When it comes down to it, you are both a mother and an individual, but the difference is that while you may be fighting in your eyes to preserve yourself as a person, your child has yet to even develop a self: they are reliant on you to explain and show them the world. So be patient with their neediness. Eventually, they’ll bounce off again to play or fall asleep. Either way, you can get back to your conversation once the tyke has mellowed out and gotten their share of mama-love.

Kids really aren’t all that bad, though some will always argue against their presence at festivals. However — it is entirely possible and encouraged for parents to play up their child’s cuteness for their own benefit, which leads to tip number ten:

  • Position your offspring to the highest advantage: in 2004, my mother and I attended Burning Man together. I, being an industrious and adventurous little squirt got a job in the food-service part of our camp. This kept me occupied and involved and relatively out of harm’s way. I always made sure to run three bowls of food and drinks to my mother and her friends. They never had to wait in line, I was very rarely encroaching upon my mother, and I felt involved and important and was relied on in the kitchen. Everybody won.

And finally, in case this wasn’t clear:

  • Have fun. Dance on the stage with your tots, wear matching make up, dye your hair together and sing about Chihuahuas and the Simpsons and speak about politics and religion with them; when your kids are older, consider teaching them how to make their own drinks and give them personal anecdotes when the time seems right. Philosophize with them; treat them as a developing person. Love them, provide for them, but let your hair down while you do it.

Just remember this; if you’re an offbeat mama or papa, you will have an offbeat kid. Half of who a person is depends on their environment in their early life — expect your child to be a little individual: don’t expect them to have much comfort or understanding of “normal” society or respect a higher authority. Expect them to be exactly what you made them: artistic, independent, expressive and outside the box.

Your offbeat kids will want independence and recognition far before they’re ready for it. Having adventured with adults, they will be verbose and free-thinking. Just remember that when they reach their teenage years (and whine on and on about how nothing the education system is relevant and how you worry because they’re going to raves and smoking weed on the weekends), relax. Take a breath, and offer sane, logical, non-judgmental advice. Set ground rules, but not limitations. It’s all about compromise. Give them freedom when they’re wee, and they’ll expect it all their life.

So, as an offbeat kid from an offbeat mama, do I recommend my childhood lifestyle? Sure. Yes. I don’t think there’s any one way to correctly parent. I also don’t think children and parents really recognize the other as individuals for a while, which leads to tension and conflict, and makes the lovely metamorphosis process a real bitch.

Remember: you love each other. Kids turn into “sane adults” once the hormones die down. And kids, your parents will never be normal. There’s no such thing; we’re all young and wild at heart and we all have our own things to dance off and out of. Stay offbeat!

Comments on Parenting tips from a teen who grew up going to festivals

  1. As being raised very on-beat, I’m jealous of your experiences Jessica! What a joy to be able to experience all of that with your family. Even at 21 my mother wouldn’t attend Burning Man with me (even though she had 10 of them under her belt!). I am in the “baby planning” phase and my parents spend hours espousing their viewpoints on how I should raise my own children. I am a slightly off-beat type, and its good to see that I can reference you when they begin to harass me about how I plan to travel with my young children.

    If you haven’t picked a college yet, look at Smith College! They’d love to have someone like you. 🙂

  2. What happens when the offbeat kids wants to be in a normal family? This off beat family of 5 moved out of our off beat town, into suburbia (because we just needed a bigger home for our money with that last surprise babe) but my off beat daughter is rebelling with normalcy and just doesn’t understand why we cant be like every one else. She is 7, apparently an important age to fit in. Her “beat music” or her house compilations and down tempo is being replaced by Justin Beaver. A little advice you might have for her trying to fit in with the normal kids, especially when some make fun our differences. Like her homemade clothes, momma made sweaters and long prairie skirts now get only worn on weekends. I tell her the others are jealous that their moms cant make them awesome clothes just how they ordered but to that i get the death ray look and a “mom why cant we go to the mall like every one else?” She also is behind because she is not vegging in front of the Disney teeny bop channel or tv after school. Please, I hope this is a passing phase or Im afraid I might have to squeeze us back into our small home in a town were the kids are comfortable being themselves. I just want her to have confidence in herself and to become who she is not who her friends are.

    • no matter how ‘normal’ a family is, at some point every kid will feel that they wish they had a more normal family. your daughter is your unique and amazing creation, her personality will shine through in her words, the way she carries herself and the adult she grows up to be – at age 7 there is scarcely any such thing as ‘fashion sense’ other than a favorite color, her primary worry is other kids thinking she looks like a weirdo.

      all kids have this fear, those whose parents shop at k-mart or wal-mart or wear older sibling’s hand-me-downs worry that their peers will judge them as “poor” and this is sometimes a concern with homemade items too, they don’t realize yet that a sweater sewn with $5 of yarn and mom’s love is way more economical and warm than a sparkly $25 barbie sweatshirt that will have holes in a month, but she has to learn that lesson herself. when she is a teenager she will start to explore fashion on her own and realize the difference between ‘cool, unique’ and ‘trendy’. despite all logic, she believes that she will be the ‘only one who doesn’t have this-and-that’, and it may cause less sadness just to get it as a special rare gift than to make a big deal about not getting it.

      go to the mall with her, and use it as a good opportunity to explain the difference between cheap, foreign factory items and a durable item that will last longer. let her drag you around to the stores that has clothes she thinks are cute, try stuff on you have no intention of buying, and then compromise on a few items that she can wear in different outfits along with some of her favorite homemade stuff, it’s a good time of year to get summer stuff and t-shirts and shorts are always cheap.

      i guarantee it will be a fun outing for the both of you, and you will learn a lot about what the other kids wear.

  3. Great post! Thank you for such great insight! As a parent of 4 young boys, it is great to hear that there is more than one path to follow and that the kiddo appreciate that!

  4. I love this post. I too am a child of burners, starting when I was 14. I’m 24 now and expecting my first child. My friends never understood my cross dressing freak of a dad. But despite his shortcomings, he was the best dad I could have asked for. Your post resonated with me in a big way and I’m glad I’m not the only one out there who was raised this way. I think we turned out pretty good personally!! 🙂

  5. LOVE LOVE LOVE this Jessica 😀

    A most excellent, ONEderFull read, informative, insightFull, educational and full of LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE ❤

    I would hafta say….whatever CHOICEs yOUR mama made must’ve BEen pretty AWEsome….’cuz hahney, that’s exactly what YOU are!

    BLISSEdly BE
    Radiating LOVE
    Rhonda Sheryl Lipstein
    roni ❤

  6. this article is awesome, i cried.. such an affirmation..;) my daughter will be 12 at BM this year. if we go it will be her 5th (starting at 3 y.o).. her first festival being dragonfly at 2 weeks old..surrounded in a circle of OM and chants of her name in a big ol loving nouveau hippie circus artist family. We are musicians and costume designers and circus performers.. my daughter grew up in rehearsals and surrounded by people who truly love and celebrate this life. yes, there is danger at festivals and parties, as there is everywhere. I agree with all of Jessica’s advice as we have been living and sharing in these ways and my girlie is so strong and confident and freeky and funny and outgoing and talented and such a wise and good communicator, totally looks out for all of the littles who came after her. What wondrous new paths to realization, full blossoming humanity we all carve!! So blessed to be here in NorCal, may the love and the light and the strong and wise children ripple out and love up the world in the same sane safe fully effective way that creates positive evolution, caring for one another and the planet in free expression and acceptance of all ways.. blessed be beauties!! thank you Jessica for writing and keep it flowing!!

  7. Thankyou for this article I grew up just like you a festival baby with offbeat parents and its made me who I am today.:) I am now carrying on the tradition with my own children although my partner who is from a very conservative background does not seem to agree.i want my children to have the same experiences that taught me to be a non judgemental strong and relaxed personality that has made me the adult I am today.and my parents are my best friends.i tell them everything unlike my partner who seems to have a very distant relationship with his parent which I think is so sad.

  8. This is a phenomenal article that shares such a unique perspective. As someone who is an educator it is amazing to see a young author with such a great sense of agency. Keep up the amazing work; unique perspectives are always needed in the inundation of mainstream writing.

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