The last time I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” most of my time was spent in a high school classroom waiting for the weekend. I remember liking the book just fine, with its old-fashioned feel, but it maybe didn’t lodge as firmly in my distracted heart as my impassioned literature teacher would’ve liked.
Something about this summer, though, with its long, humid evenings and its woods full of screaming cicadas, has caused my dusty little copy of Harper Lee’s masterpiece to set up an insistent “read me” buzz from my bookshelf. And when a book begs to be read, my friends, I heed its serious call.
Some books just aren’t right for a person’s season. However beloved, some novels will not hit home and might be abandoned until later, when they can be appreciated in their fullness. I think “To Kill a Mockingbird” was just such a book for me in high school. But in my adulthood — oh, my. This was the book’s season for me.
The story itself, as you probably know, is nearly perfect in its intimate examination of justice and civil rights. Compelling, gripping, meaningful, etc. What struck me in this rereading, though, were the takeaways from a parenting standpoint.
For one thing, much of the story’s action takes place in deep Southern summertimes, and I couldn’t help noticing that Jem and Scout’s summer experiences are both iconic and memorably dull. Many of the kids’ lazy long days led to pea-brained schemes and whopperish tall tales. My own kids’ air-conditioned summers are like resort vacations by comparison.
As a literary father, though, Atticus Finch is as good as it gets, and most of the parenting realizations I came to while reading were thanks to his interactions with his kids. Child-rearing lessons are definitely not something I would’ve noticed in my teenaged reading, but as a parent, here are three ways “To Kill a Mockingbird” speaks to me, with especial thanks to Atticus himself.
“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 quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.”
As Atticus explains to his brother his formula for answering questions, we get a glimpse into what seems to be his entire parenting philosophy: that children are worthy of honesty as a means of both offering guidance and showing respect. And not just children — all people, of all backgrounds and all understandings, deserve to hear honest words. By speaking honestly, parents begin to instill in their children a sense of dignity and trust.
He holds fast to honest answers, proving his kids — and ours — are smarter than assumed and more resilient too.
“It’s not time to worry yet,” seems to be one of Atticus’ favorite phrases. He says it so often that even Jem employs it when he’s feeling mature and responsible for helping calm his little sister’s anxiety. It’s used so many times throughout the book that I began to wonder when, exactly, the time to worry would arrive.
Young Scout sees her father as reliably steady, having an “infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas” both in the courtroom and in the living room. The vision of Atticus calmly folding his newspaper when confronted by an angry mob is reassuring, terrifying and awe-inspiring to her. But it’s his ability to remain calm and not react with either anger or punishment when handling his children’s growing pains that gets my standing ovation.
Instead of barking for clarity, he says, “Again, please,” when he’s stymied by one of Scout’s rambling outbursts. Instead of losing his temper when Jem spitefully ruins a neighbor’s flowers, Atticus carefully listens to his son’s thoughts, then calmly enforces reparations. His children grow to respect his steady patience as one more proof that they’re worth something important: care and guidance but never resentment.
We put off so much in life. Maybe we should take Atticus’ advice and procrastinate the time for worrying, which never did arrive during Scout’s dutiful retelling of one summer’s turbulence. It was often time for thinking, learning, making amends or offering understanding, but it never became time to worry.
“She minds me as well as she can,” Atticus told his brother once about Scout. “Doesn’t come up to scratch half the time, but I know she tries. That’s what makes the difference.”
Atticus’ children aren’t exactly treated as mature adults — there are still boundaries and repercussions — but they’re not treated as some adults think is necessary, with overlorded authority and belittlement. He never talks down to them, but he accepts the reality and constraints of their childhood abilities. He accepts them in all their imperfect glory (just as we all wish to be accepted) and what he gets in return is a great relationship with small people who are truly interesting and intelligent.
What’s more, Atticus appears to strive to live his life so that his children won’t be ashamed of him instead of ever worrying about being ashamed of his children. For proof, look to his speech near the book’s end, when he won’t allow the sheriff to float a cover-up story:
“If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him ... If I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him.”
Atticus also works to extend this acceptance to everyone he meets, as proven by his iconic quote, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Sarah Coyne is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is email@example.com.