Ah, the new year. A time of restoration and purpose — the opportunity to envision our best selves, and commit again to our personal ideals. We want to move upward, do better than we did the year before. For a day or two, the rest of the world takes on this halo effect: Maybe it, too, is turning a corner, realizing its hidden potential. What a glorious dawn to greet us.
Except then you log on and see everyone talking about some character called “Bean Dad.”
What, or who, is Bean Dad? It’s a question you may not want the answer to, but for many, the curious moniker was an irresistible temptation. I first encountered the reference on the evening of January 2, 2021, and quickly fed it back into Twitter search to find the source. It turned out to be a lengthy thread by musician and podcaster John Roderick, who claimed that the day before — the first of the year, when everything is charged with infinite possibility — he’d set out to make an object lesson of his 9-year-old daughter’s need for food. According to his account, he decided not to prepare a snack or meal, but set her a challenge: Open a can of baked beans with a can opener, a tool she’d never used before, without any demonstration of how it worked.
After six hours of frustration and tears, Roderick said, the kid at last brought this “Teaching Moment” to a conclusion by cutting into the top of a can of beans. During the journey, dad marveled at the particulars of the kitchen mechanism and criticized his child’s “process visualization” and “spatial orientation” as she struggled to figure it out. “I know I’m infuriating,” he added at the end of the thread. “I know this is parenting theater in some ways.” But, of course, there is no theater absent an audience, and Roderick knew that his 40,000 followers would enjoy this tale of hardscrabble pedagogy, narrated in affected style, which cast him as a father apart — instead of doing everything for his girl, he was raising her to be self-reliant. Epic win.
I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to say what sort of outcomes you might expect from this paternal approach. Once the tweets traveled outside of Roderick’s supportive bubble, however, they raised varying accusations of child abuse and cruelty. By the following morning, “Bean Dad” was trending alongside a couple of related topics. Neurodivergent people — those with conditions including ADHD and autism — related it to trauma from similar “lessons” in their upbringings. Others speculated that the girl could develop an eating disorder or anxiety regarding food.
Then the old tweets resurfaced: Roderick in years past had posted like a classic edgelord, using anti-Semitic and homophobic language, as well as the N-word, and pejoratives for the mentally disabled, all in contexts that suggest he was “joking,” but nonetheless prone to hateful terms.
The tendrils kept unfurling. The comedy advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me, which had for a decade used a song by Roderick’s band The Long Winters as their theme music, announced they would drop it and look to other artists for their soundtrack. Ken Jennings, a collaborator with Roderick on a podcast project and well-known Jeopardy! champion who is thought to be in the running to succeed the late Alex Trebek as host of the game show, described his friend as an “attentive” father who “tells heightened-for-effect stories.”
The shaky defense wobbled more when Jennings suggested that Roderick’s “pro-Israel” views meant he couldn’t be an anti-Semite. Before you knew it, the drama had metastasized to the point where you sounded insane trying to explain it to anyone not terminally online. Finally, Bean Dad nuked his Twitter.
You might say that Bean Dad did everything wrong here, and that would be hard to refute. Yet in his original tale — and his initially defiant reaction to the backlash — he showed glimmers of the awareness that could have prevented ruin. So many of these episodes are avoidable if you keep your dumb ideas and behavior to yourself; posting is the gateway to cancelation.
Bean Dad knew he was being obnoxious and theatrical, and he knew he wanted accolades for what he considered some great innovation in fatherhood. Whatever happened on New Year’s Day between him and his daughter, he just had to tell it in a voice he thought would impress his fans. He was parenting for clout. Methods of parenting, though, as we saw, are a dangerous subject, and even a seemingly innocuous disagreement in this area has the potential — since we’re talking about the wellbeing and harm of vulnerable children — to ignite an internet firestorm. (Add some incidental detail as naturally funny as beans, and the fuel may never run out.)
Before he deleted, Bean Dad alternated his responses to the critics, with disastrous effect. First, he tried to disprove the charges: Six hours is a normal length of time between meals, he said, so it’s not as if his daughter was starving. (Never mind that the whole saga began because she was hungry, then had to solve a complicated, hours-long problem if she wanted to be fed.) Then he complained that he was only being savaged by people who did not follow him, whereas his usual crowd had warmly approved of his parenting technique and its dramatization. (A good rule of thumb is to never expect Twitter strangers to be sympathetic to your preening self-importance.) Perhaps worst of all, he tried to own the controversy in a fashion canonically established as “I’m not mad, I’m actually laughing” — he added “Bean Dad” to his bio and implied that he’d stirred up all this clangor on purpose, since somebody had to kick off the new year “with a bang.”
These desperate efforts at damage control were outgrowths of his original mistake: turning a family anecdote into a public seminar on his educational genius. The drive to inflate his ego like this convinced him he was in the right, that nobody outside his social circle would read it as a 52-year-old nerd lording power over his very young kid, and that if push ever came to shove, he could glibly adopt or promote the villainous qualities assigned to him.
How strange and telling that Roderick, a man with an array of creative ventures to his name, would have those accomplishments eclipsed by a sense of infallibility as a father, and the fateful instinct to project it into a virtual community more than ready to cut him off at the knees. The guy seems no more or less awful than many dudes with a taste of fame, a blue check and tens of thousands of followers, and he would have continued right on in that lane, entirely ignored by everyone who now sees him as Bean Dad, if he hadn’t juiced the can opener story for likes.
I don’t have kids myself, but I recognize the hazards of folding them into your content in a way that reinforces your alleged superiority. Even if you get away with it in the short term, children do grow up, they log on and they read. Soon enough, it’s time for them to start telling their side.