What Atticus Finch Can Teach Us About Parenting

I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman on my way to Austin last Friday. No, I wasn’t reading and driving – my husband drove. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Go Set a Watchman was written before Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise Finch in Watchman is Scout all grown up. She is a 25-year-old woman returning from New York City to visit her father, Atticus Finch, in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama.

You may have also heard the uproar over Go Set a Watchman. Some fans of Mockingbird are refusing to read it because they’ve heard Atticus Finch is racist, and they just can’t bear to view him that way.

As a parent, I enjoyed reading how Scout, the child, viewed Atticus, as opposed to how Scout (Jean Louise), the adult, saw him. While you could say that Atticus is racist, I feel that such a reading is much too black and white (pun intended). Atticus, the father, is consistent throughout both books. It’s Jean Louise who changes, and it is Atticus who patiently bears the brunt of Jean Louise’s rage as she grows into true adulthood.

Having young adult children, this book was particularly poignant to me, especially considering that my husband and I were going to Austin to help our daughter move from an apartment to a house as she enters a new phase of her life. She’ll be quitting a good job to start graduate school at the University of Texas this fall. And she happens to be the same age as Jean Louise.

In an era when many parents are hyper-involved in their kids’ lives to the point of calling their college professors, getting them jobs or supporting them into their 30s, I found Atticus’s approach to parenting refreshing. He encouraged Jean Louise to go to New York, and he allowed her to form her own opinions about him and her hometown when she returned.

Children see their parents as heroes. Ask a 6-year-old child who his or her hero is, and most of the time the answer will be “My mom” or “My dad.” Scout is no different. In Mockingbird, Atticus is perfect.

But as our children mature, they begin to see their parents’ flaws, idiosyncrasies and ugliness. And they also begin to form their own lives, opinions, values and interests.

When Jean Louise goes to the same balcony in the courtroom where she saw her father successfully defend the young black man against rape in Mockingbird, and she sees Atticus apparently colluding with the town segregationists, her life shatters. Atticus falls from the pedestal where she has held him since childhood.

Isn’t that the way it should be? Jean Louis’s disillusionment with her father may be more dramatic and painful than most young adult children experience, but at some point children become adults, and the relationship changes. We, as readers, are disillusioned as well, because up to this point, we’ve memorialized Atticus Finch as young Scout has seen him – perfect.

The fictional Jean Louise is moving ahead, leaving her father and the Old South with its old mores behind. She is the future of the South. Atticus is an aging citizen of Maycomb, longing for everything to slow down; he wants change to happen gradually, for people to get used to it. Atticus and Jean Louise pull against each other, just as the states and the federal government pull against each other in confronting civil rights. Atticus at all times remains steadfast, telling Jean Louise he loves her even as she is telling him she hates him and never wants to see him again.

Atticus, like any good parent, stands fast in his love and accepts that Jean Louise has her own life to live as an adult, whatever that is.  He recognizes, like any good parent, that he must fall in order for her to rise. Atticus doesn’t try to define or describe or create her life for her. Like any good parent, Atticus is wise enough to understand that she is letting go of her perfect image of him so that she can become her own person. And, in the end, Jean Louise is wise enough to understand this as well.

After my husband and I helped our daughter get the furniture set up in her new room to begin this new chapter in her life, I left Go Set a Watchman on her beside table for her to read, and we left.

Categories: Editor’s Blog