“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine, too.” – Scout, from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
My most recent reading of To Kill a Mockingbird was my first reading as a parent – at least as a parent with children old enough to talk – and Atticus Finch is my new hero.
Atticus, father to Jem and Scout, the children from whose perspective To Kill a Mockingbird is told, is one of the fairest men I’ve come across in literature. He has always been a hero: for defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1940s Alabama; for his calm in facing a mob of his own friends and neighbors; for his reluctance to claim the title “One-Shot Finch” dispite his marksmanship skills, and for subsequently laying down his weapon because “he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things.”
He has always been a hero for these reasons, but now that I’m a parent who struggles with equipping our children to navigate their world, with knowing what to talk to them about and when, with gentling them into the inconsistencies in human nature, with teaching them to treat people with respect and fairness, and most importantly, with how to model right behavior to them, Atticus Finch is my hero all over again.
Atticus respects his children as individuals and as equals. This is not something we normally do as parents. We often put ourselves above our children, trying to make them mind, to do our bidding because “we know best.” Atticus, though. Atticus knows that sometimes the children know best.
“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?… Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.”
Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus respects his kids by talking straight with them. He answers their every question without flinching. When his eight year old daughter, Scout, asked “What’s rape?” Atticus “sighed, and said rape was carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” He did not dodge. He did not shroud the topic in mystery and discomfort. He defined rape for her, and if she’d had any follow up questions he would have answered those, too.
He reacted with similar equanimity when Scout started swearing. When at the dinner table Scout said, “Pass the damn ham, please” to her uncle, Atticus told him, “Don’t pay any attention to her, Jack. She’s trying you out. Cal says she’s been cussing fluently for a week, now.”
But the thing I love most about Atticus as a parent is that he not only respects his children and their right to be themselves – he allows Scout to read the newspaper even though her teacher prescribes against it, he permits his kids to hear the verdict in Tom Robinson’s case despite his sister’s wailing protests, he allows them the freedom to be children rather than forcing them to respect their “gentle breeding” by making them “behave like the little lady and gentleman” they are – no, not only does Atticus respect their right to be themselves, but he encourages their exploration and independence because he recognizes the preciousness of children, and what a great gift they are in teaching us, as grownups, how to be humane. When Jem struggles to understand the injustice served to Tom Robinson by his own friends and neighbors, people he thought were good folk, he says to Atticus,
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”
Now, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a parent, I have been humbled by yet another layer of its wisdom. Now, when I am struggling as a mom, when I’m not sure what answer to give, or which battles to fight, I will ask myself, What Would Atticus Do? And then I’ll know what’s right.
This was originally published November 13, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.