Yesterday, Twitter discourse blew up after podcaster and musician John Roderick (JR) shared a polarising story about a ‘teachable moment’ with his nine-year-old daughter. He has since deleted his Twitter account; here are the first couple of tweets in a series of around ten:
JR goes on to tell — depending on which corner of Twitter you inhabit — a sweet and/or alarming story about leaving his nine-year-old daughter to struggle to open this tin of beans for *six hours*.
That’s right, six hours after this kid asks for food, she gets to eat. And only when she manages to open this godforsaken tin of mother f**king beans.
She succeeds in spite of the fact that our latest Twitter-main-character ‘Bean Dad’ offered only questions, like a rainy day stir-crazy Socrates.
Unsurprisingly, two poles of Twitter clashed hard. Those who believe that the tough love of their parents never hurt them, versus those who believe they developed Complex Post Traumatic Disorder as a result of their parent’s cluelessness. One user suggested that JR’s kid would be telling this story in therapy years later.
Another user recommended JR read The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad You Did) by psychotherapist Philippa Perry, in order to get some tips about how to parent in a more child-friendly and empathetic way. (Great suggestion, by the way — better than some of the rest of the vitriol.)
It was less than twenty-four hours of spotlight later that JR — now inescapably Twitter’s anti-hero ‘Bean Dad’ — deleted his account.
What worked for you might not work for your kids
No matter your opinion, Bean Dad definitely showed a lack of empathy and boundaries. Just because he was entertained doing a jigsaw puzzle, he assumed she was equally entertained with her impossible tin-opener. What struck me about the story was how little credence he gave to their clearly different learning styles and skillsets.
Leaving his kid to struggle with something that she already found difficult is an inconsiderate move. She showed a good understanding of the parts, but he still wouldn’t throw her a bone. Instead, he stalled even as she cried and lost her temper and told him she hated him.
He then tweeted about it — showing a dimension of strangeness and detachment over and above anything I experienced in my childhood. And I can only imagine how that would have incensed this angry, hungry, nine-year-old.
Growing up, my skillset did not match the one that was most valued in my family. I knew how to write and make up stories, but, like ‘Bean Daughter’, I couldn’t ‘intuitively’ fix anything. I was uncoordinated. I struggled to follow instructions unless they were written down.
I landed in a family full of practical-to-the-point-of-near-genius men. My dad, uncle, brother, cousins, all loved to do and make and take apart. Me, I just wanted to daydream. But I also wanted their approval. And so I was a willing guinea pig for many of their contraptions. Launched up high on a makeshift rope swing to test if it was safe. Sent into the hollow tree to see if it was big enough not to get stuck.
I insisted on being treated like the boys though I was much smaller, younger, a different gender, and much less practically minded. Cue many mishaps with vehicles and tools. I distinctly remember my dad chasing me down on a minibike when I kept pumping the accelerator instead of the brakes.
What nobody noticed about my inability to ‘intuit’ how things worked, was that I was dealing with a number of special needs. This year I found out that I’m autistic. I’m waiting for a diagnosis of ADHD, too. I’m likely a little dyslexic and dyspraxic too. Without my writing ability, I might be somewhat f**ked.
Like her, my brain ‘goes fuzzy’ sometimes (which turns out to be because I struggle with executive functioning). I experience a lot of anxiety as a result. Mostly I panic when I know that I’m doing something wrong.
My point is, we’re not all the same. And personally, I think the kid did well getting the can open, in anxiety-nightmare conditions, within a six-hour time frame.
To be watched by someone who knows exactly how you are failing to do a simple task. To know they are hungry also, and that your inability is keeping them from eating. No wonder she was crying.
I love the idea of letting the kid try for herself. For attempting a teachable moment. Bean Dad was trying to empower his daughter. But as time passed, it was no longer about her. Maybe her inability triggered something in him. Perhaps he wanted to punish her for needing him so much.
I can imagine Bean Daughter is doing everything to reassure dad that he didn’t do anything wrong. I’d be curious to know how she really felt about the event. I hope someone is giving her the space to find out.
The nature of learning is that it evolves throughout our lives. We learn one thing from an experience in the moment, and then another about the same experience ten years later. Some experiences stay with us for our whole lives, teaching us about who we are and about who the people around us are too. As we change and grow, the lessons we learn from our experiences change and grow with us.
So what did Bean Daughter learn?
As the daughter of a very practical man, I know that I learned some complicated lessons. The day my dad let me ride that minibike I wasn’t capable of riding, I learned that I was dumber than all the males around me and couldn’t follow simple instructions.
It must have been pretty funny after everyone realized I was alright, this scrappy little kid insisting she was capable of having a go on the minibike, then tazzing down the field while her dad tried desperately to push her off the vehicle to safety.
They laughed at me for a long time after that one. I hated it. But I learned to laugh at myself. I had to if I was going to survive. By the time I was a teenager I didn’t take myself seriously at all. At 37, I’m still learning how to.
The other part of JR’s Twitter thread that made me uncomfortable was, when his daughter cried in frustration, how he compared her to Lucy Van Pelt, the older sister in historical cartoon Snoopy, created by Charles Schulz in 1950. Schulz admitted disliking Lucy. His favorite characters were Charlie, Snoopy and Linus. Aka all the male characters.
So far, so usual. (On the casual-misogyny-in-pop-culture track, there’s an episode of similarly male-dominated Family Guy in which Peter Griffin literally kicks the shit out of Lucy Van Pelt. Her crime? Stopping Charlie Brown from kicking a football.)
Unconscious bias strikes again? I have no doubt that JR didn’t mean anything sexist by the comparison. That he adores his daughter is clear, in spite of his missteps. But all of these pieces are fitting together like his beloved jigsaw to create a map of the world and her place in it, inside his daughter’s head.
Growing up, my brother and I learned different things from the same curriculum. Practical exercises showed him he was competent and capable. He has gone on to design and build trains for a living.
Meanwhile, the same lessons taught me that I was neither intuitive, practical, nor competent. At the same time, I was also learning the lesson that I was female. That it was cool for girls to be able to do boys’ things but shameful for boys to even like girls’ things. These disparate ideas combined in my conscious and unconscious mind.
Increasingly I retreated into my inner world. I turned to alcohol. And I wrote a novel about a girl growing up surrounded by boys bound by toxic masculinity. I had to unlearn a lot of the lessons from my childhood. Now I teach other dreamers how to write.
Children are powerless. That’s why some sections of Twitter are crying ‘abuse’. Nine-year-olds aren’t miniature adults. They might pretend to be, but you mustn’t fall for it. Their brains are still developing. You are helping them to take shape. You have a great responsibility to keep them safe, not just physically, but emotionally.
Children need person-centered, not authoritarian, approaches to their lessons. Of course, some on Twitter are showing the same lack of empathy JR did, in the pile-shaming. I hope he is learning from the whole thing. Not only the no-brainer that Twitter is toxic and polarising but that he needs to do better at comprehending his daughter’s experience.
Philippa Perry’s book contains a lot of good advice. She says that in building healthy relationships it’s crucial to be able to do repairs when you realize you’ve got it wrong. JR could still do this.
He would have to be able to get out of the way sufficiently to realize that this story isn’t about him or how he parents. It’s about his daughter and how she felt when he tried to teach her in a way that made her feel inferior and inadequate. At a time when her basic needs weren’t being met.
If he can have the humility to apologise, this could be his real teachable moment.