Four years ago, the world lost literary legend, Harper Lee. In 1960, Lee became instantly famous for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird: a tale about friendship, racism, justice, and growing up in a sleepy Alabama town in the 1930s. A native of Monroeville, AL, Harper Lee was a quiet, private woman who liked to stay out of the public eye as much as possible. Lee’s debut novel was prolific enough to make her one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century. I’m sure almost all of us have read To Kill a Mockingbird at some point or another, whether as assigned reading in school or simply for pleasure. As a lifetime resident of the South, it has always been a book that I like to have on annual rotation for the hot, humid springs and summers.
While there are so many wonderful things to love about To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorites is the character of Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer with a noble heart and a passion for justice. Since the book is unfolded through the eyes of Scout, Atticus’ young daughter, the reader comes to appreciate Atticus– not only as a lawyer, but also as a father. His words and actions convey important lessons to his young children, reminding us of the impact that parents can make in the examples they set. In light of the special relationship between Atticus and Scout, and in remembrance of Harper Lee, here are 5 lessons from Atticus Finch for parents and children. I hope you get a chance to read this wonderful book with your children and talk about some of the valuable things it has to teach us!
1. Reading is important.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch reads a great deal and places an emphasis on reading and knowledge for his children. Scout is a very capable reader, even at the age of six, before she formally begins school. The importance of reading in this story is about more than just academics; it’s about the cultivation of wisdom and the ability to think for oneself. These qualities are shown in contrast to some ignorant attitudes demonstrated by other characters in the novel.
2. Don’t judge people before you know them.
Atticus sets this example for Scout and Jem by choosing to have faith in and defend Tom Robinson, the man whom everyone assumes raped a woman (simply because she is white and he is black). Later, we see Scout apply the lesson of not judging others blindly in her changing viewpoint of the mysterious Bo Radley: from fear to fascination to friendship. Atticus tells Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
3. Children deserve to be taken seriously.
Jem and Scout have learned from their father that it is normal to be inquisitive and to tell truth. In addition, they expect the same kind of treatment in return. At one point in the book, Atticus explains that children shouldn’t be talked down to or lied to, but they ought to be taken seriously: “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.”
4. The Meaning of Bravery
Atticus shows his children that bravery is not just about winning fights; sometimes it’s about resisting the urge to get into them in the first place. Other times, it’s about fighting for what’s right, despite the fact you know you’ll lose. When Scout gets into a fight at school over her father defending Tom Robinson, Atticus tells her: “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”
At another point in the book, Atticus skillfully takes aim at a rabid dog that’s lose in the streets and takes him down with one shot. His children are shocked and impressed at this demonstration of skill from their father, whom they’ve never seen with a gun. Later Atticus explains why he’d never told them he knew how to shoot a gun. He says: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
5. A person’s conscience doesn’t abide by majority rule.
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” are actually Atticus’ precise words. Perhaps this is the lesson that the whole novel culminates toward: think for yourself, don’t judge too quickly, ask questions, seek the truth, be brave. Ultimately, these are all the necessary steps one must take to find and follow his or her conscience.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch teaches his children how to distinguish between right and wrong and to do what is just, even when that requires a great deal of courage. I think these are qualities we all hope to possess and to pass on to future generations. Though there are many powerful lessons in the novel, I think one of the most important ones we can take away, as parents, is that our children are always watching us as examples for how we can be and act. If you plan to read this classic novel this spring or summer, be sure to look out for these 5 lessons from Atticus Finch!
Do you love this classic book, too? What are some other valuable lessons we can talk to our kids about when reading To Kill A Mockingbird?