“Bean Dad” Gets a Visit from Child Protective Services: Is that Good?

You may recall that last month, a comedian/musician named John Roderick became known all over the Western World (or at least Twitter) as “Bean Dad,” thanks to his tweets about making his nine-year-old daughter figure out how to use a can opener if she wanted to eat. The thread went viral, and Roderick swiftly became tweeter non grata.

Recently he divulged a new wrinkle in the story: For his afternoon of bean-withholding, Roderick actually earned a visit from child protective services (CPS).

In “Roderick on the Line,” his weekly podcast with Merlin Mann, Roderick said, “A dozen people reported me to CPS and they were obligated to come interview my family and interrogate my daughter.”

What an investigator asks a kid

Thankfully, the CPS visit went well. “They were wonderful,” said Roderick. “And they were just doing their jobs.”

Apparently one investigator spoke to Roderick’s daughter for about an hour, privately, asking questions like, “What do you like about your dad?” and, “What do you not like about your dad?” Roderick’s daughter told him about this afterward. Turns out she doesn’t like the fact he gets tired of playing Legos faster than she does.

I’m thrilled this was not a hanging offense.

The problem with anonymous reporting

Yet I’m dismayed that it’s trivially easy for anyone with a phone to summon the authorities to rap at someone’s door, enter their home, and interrogate their kids. A caller can instigate this without meeting the parent or knowing almost anything about them. And they can do this anonymously—over and over again, if they choose. This is a system that needs fixing.

As far back as 1987, Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, told Congress:

For fear of missing even one abused child, workers perform extensive investigations of vague and apparently unsupported reports.

The investigations have only increased since then, terrifying literally millions of innocent families each year.

While, tragically, deaths by neglect and abuse do occur, they represent two out of every 100,000 calls to child abuse hotlines. That’s not a system that’s working.

Worse: As the number of hotline calls has increased over the years – over 7 million kids are now reported annually (that’s about 1 in 10 kids) — so has the number of child deaths by abuse. It’s possible that with so many pointless hotline calls, CPS is too busy investigating perfectly fine parents to have time to delve into the worst.

Is being annoying actual abuse?

Roderick’s 23-tweet saga did not seem to suggest anything dangerous. He detailed how his daughter was hungry one afternoon when he was busy doing a puzzle. She found a can of beans and he told her she should open it with a can opener, but then refused to show her how to use it. He thought it would be a good lesson in ingenuity and resourcefulness. The process took six frustrating, sometimes tearful hours, and in his tweets, Roderick didn’t mention her eating anything during her struggle. Later on, after the blowup, he explained:

My story about my daughter and the can of beans was poorly told. I didn’t share how much laughing we were doing, how we had a bowl of pistachios between us all day as we worked on the problem, or that we’d both had a full breakfast together a few hours before. Her mother was in the room with us all day and alternately laughing at us and telling us to be quiet while she worked on her laptop.

Too late: The internet already had his head on a pixel, and what’s more, folks had dredged up old tweets that sure looked racist and anti-Semitic. Roderick later explained that those were trying to make fun of hoary old tropes. (To me, this does seem believable and I am personally sorry I took them at face value.)

The definition of child abuse

Child abuse is defined as an “act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation” or an act that “presents imminent risk of serious harm.

From reading the tweet storm that followed his story, it sounded like some people thought this was indeed emotional abuse. Roderick later said that he understood how people could have misgauged the interaction. But I read the whole thread again and, in the cold light of rationality, it did not strike me as abusive. More like a teachable moment that had some real highs, but went on too long. The internet is not great at nuance.

And then there were those who thought six hours without food was physical abuse that could even end in an eating disorder. Without any evidence that food-withholding was common in the home (it didn’t sound that way), this is a big leap: from one confounding afternoon to lifelong problem. I don’t think kids are made of Kryptonite, and I sure don’t want them abused or humiliated. But I do think that we underestimate them when we overestimate the impact of any single upset.

Weaponizing CPS

Then there is the larger problem: The baseline assumption that whenever a parent, or even one parenting decision, is suboptimal, the government should get involved. Or, worse: to punish a guy you don’t like, you can upend his life with one quick, anonymous phone call.

That’s using CPS as a mail bomb.

The fact that Roderick’s CPS visit went well is reassuring. But parents should not be at the mercy of any scold with a phone. That’s why the time has come to end anonymous calling. The time has also come to narrow the neglect laws—something Let Grow is working on—so the government knocks on fewer doors, and opens fewer cans of worms. Or beans. Or both.