What would Atticus do?

Story highlights

  • To Kill a Mockingbird is a parenting manual punctuated by moments of courtroom drama
  • Atticus Finch lives by a code: let your conscience be your guide
  • Atticus can help teach parents to raise virtuous, courageous, resilient, fair and empowered children

David G. Allan is editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. He wrote this story in 2014 for the BBC. He writes The Wisdom Project and you can follow him @davidgallan or his column tinyletter.com/wisdomproject

The novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a staple of American classrooms because of its inspiring and elegantly written lessons about justice, equality and civic duty. But long before your child brings this classic home, it should join the books on your bedside table because, at its core, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a parenting manual punctuated by moments of courtroom drama.

    Atticus Finch, small town lawyer and widower, is arguably fiction's greatest father. Atticus parents his ten-year-old son Jem and his younger sister, Scout (6), with a calm and approachable demeanor. For a man in the 1930s American South, he is a progressive. He's against spanking, never yells, and gives his children truthful answers to difficult questions. Most importantly, for his parenting philosophy and the plot of the novel, Atticus models the behavior he wants to see in his children.
      There are many books on parenting these days, and as a father of two I have read enough to know that few are great, most are mediocre and some are plain awful. These parenting guides are based on the writer's personal experiences or the latest research, but none look to literature as a source of parental wisdom. Harper Lee's classic tale weaves five valuable lessons into a gripping narrative, making them both palatable and incredibly enjoyable.

      Lesson 1: Live your values

      Atticus lives by a code: let your conscience be your guide. That's why he takes on the case at the heart of the story, the defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Scout tells Atticus that most people in the town think it's wrong to defend the accused man. But Atticus explains that "they're entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." If he didn't take the case, Atticus tells Scout, "I could never ask you to mind me again."

        Lesson 2: Listen to both sides of every story

        Unsurprisingly for a lawyer, Atticus tries to look at any given situation from both sides. When Scout gets in trouble on her first day at school for already knowing how to read (thanks to Atticus), he suggest Scout look at it from the teacher's point of view and how it could be disruptive to her lessons.
        In a more serious moment, when Atticus is threatened by the father of the novel's alleged rape victim, Bob Ewell, he doesn't react, showing a degree of emotional resilience few of us could summon. Atticus later tells an outraged Jem, "See if you can stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does...He had to take it out on somebody and I'd rather it be me than that houseful of children."
        My daughter can be angry at her teacher, her sister, a friend, my wife or me, sometimes many times a day. When she and I pause to discuss how the other person feels, as Atticus increasingly inspires me to do, we're not only solving the problem, we are developing more empathy.

        Lesson 3: Keep calm in a crisis

        Perhaps most enviable in Atticus's parenting (and hardest to achieve in reality) is the quality that the adult Scout describes as an "infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas." There is almost nothing that ruffles Atticus' feathers.
        When Bob Ewell curses at him, threatens his life and spits in his face, Atticus' only reaction is "I wish Bob Ewell wouldn't chew tobacco." A rabid dog lumbers down their street and Atticus calmly but efficiently shoots it dead (to his children's amazement as he has never boasted about his marksmanship). Repeatedly in the novel Atticus reassures the children in such difficult moments that "it's not time to worry." And yet, an appropriate time to panic never seems to arrive.