What Atticus Finch Can Teach Us About Parenting

by Colleen Lutz Clemens
Originally Published: 

Like a good teacher of literature, I had Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman in my hands the day it hit the shelves. While I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, I didn’t have the attachment so many others feel for it, though the name Scout was always in the back of my mind for a daughter. I read Mockingbird as a college student working toward a degree in English education. Though an avid reader all my life, I didn’t come across the novel until my early 20s. I devoured its prose, characterization and voice.

Early in my teaching career, I watched my 10th-grade-teaching colleagues use Mockingbird as masterfully as the book was written. They taught young people about race, justice and activism using Atticus’s model of integrity in and out of the courtroom. My teaching friends are struggling with the Atticus of Watchman; they see the articles about Atticus’s commitment to segregation and feel sad to watch him fall from grace.

Much—so much—has been written about Atticus’s abhorrent desire to maintain segregation. The distaste in his voice when he utters “NAACP” feels like razors on the reader’s skin. This Atticus isn’t the one so many of my generation grew up with, the one who caused parents to name their kids after Lee’s hero of the South, only now to express regret for choosing that name.

But there still are things we can learn from Atticus. As a 40-year-old woman raising a 3-year-old who reminds me a lot of the Scout of Mockingbird, I see some lessons in Watchman about parenting and loving a child. If you plan on reading the novel, I give you fair warning that I will be talking about the climax of the book from here on out. And let me be clear: I am not apologizing for Atticus’s beliefs about race. They are awful. But I do see that he can love his daughter even if he participates in reifying all of the things I dislike about our nation.

Watchman‘s narrative is driven by Jean Louise’s—Scout is all grown up, or at least she thinks so—attempt to reconcile the father she remembers in the courtroom with the father she now sees reading tracts on “The Black Plague” with his arthritic hands. Scout is back from New York City. Those around her try to convince her to come back to the South for love, family, even activism by the end of the novel. Her pull is between the North, where Atticus sent her after she attended an all-girls college, and the South, where what she loves and hates all sit in the same county seat of Maycomb. She articulates this tension near the end of the novel as she ruminates over her visit: “Dear goodness, the things I learned. I did not want my world disturbed, but I wanted to crush the man who’s trying to preserve it for me.”

As Jean Louise works to come to terms with the Atticus of her childhood and the Atticus she sees before her, the reader waits for the moment when the two will come together. This climax offers me lessons about parenting my little would-be Scout girl-child in a world that might not always appreciate her for who she is. Left motherless at a young age, Scout and her brother Jem become the focus of Atticus’s world—again, as we learn, a world that often includes reprehensible actions, but his world all the same. When Jean Louise reflects on the time without her mother, we see a child who does not seem lost in a motherless world: “[H]e merely reared his children as best he could, and in terms of the affection his children felt for him, his best was indeed good: he was never too tired to play Keep-Away; he was never too busy to invent marvelous stories; he was never too absorbed in his own problems to listen earnestly to a tale of woe; every night he read aloud to them until his voice cracked.”

To Scout, Atticus was present. He is allowed to be present because of the work of Calpurnia, their “Negro cook,” a fact that Jean Louise easily glosses over thanks to her racial and class privilege. Yet, to a child, his presence is felt as he takes them out into the big world, “to football games, political meetings, to church, to the office at night if he had to work late. After the sun went down, Atticus was seldom seen in public without his children in tow.” Being with her and showing her the world are only the beginning of what Atticus does for his daughter.

More importantly, he tries to cut her ties with him so she can find her own way, what already seems to me like the hardest part of this parenting gig. After she graduates, she feels spurned when Atticus “said it was high time she started shifting for herself and why didn’t she go to New York or somewhere. She was vaguely insulted and felt she was being turned out of her own house, but as the years passed she recognized the full value of Atticus’s wisdom; he was growing old and he wanted to die safe in the knowledge that his daughter could fend for herself.” In the age of helicopter parenting and free-range parenting and all kinds of parenting, it seems to me that his little bit of wisdom still rings true. Atticus knows that she needs to break away from him. The problem of the novel comes from her—and perhaps all of America’s—valorization of his Mockingbird persona. When she comes back from the big city, she can see what he is: a flawed human being clinging tightly to a dying way of life who acts despicably in his desperation to preserve his privilege.

And if the novel stopped there, we wouldn’t learn all that much. But in the end, Atticus shows his cards. After a long, often drawn-out conversation, the novel climaxes with Atticus explaining that he has to kill Scout’s romanticized notion of him in order for her to grow in a new world. When she denounces his reasoning for participating in segregationist activities, Scout compares her father to Hitler and gives a three-paragraph explanation of how his awfulness has shattered her vision of the world: “You’re the only person I think I’ve ever fully trusted and now I’m done for.” Instead of coddling her, he tells her “I’ve killed you, Scout. I had to.” She replies with, “I despise you.”

And here’s the moment of the book that pierced my heart and sums up the challenge of parenting: “Well, I love you.” He takes her vitriol, absorbs it and loves her not in spite of it but because of it. In this moment, he sees her finally becoming her own self, even if it comes at the cost of losing her. And at the cost of America losing their beloved Atticus.

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