Parenting like Atticus Finch
By the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, I wanted to name my future son Atticus – since I respected his dry humor, bravery, and wisdom so much – not only in his legal work but also in his parenting. So when our class discussion criticized Atticus as having failed at the end, I had a difficult time with that idea. Here were his purported failures: Atticus couldn’t fathom that Boo Radley might’ve killed Bob Ewell, and Atticus couldn’t believe at first that it might be poetic and true justice to tell everyone that Bob Ewell was killed by falling on his knife. Atticus apparently was so focused on raising his kids “on principle” with the absolute truth, that he needed help from Heck Tate to come to terms with the actual situation and to believe that Scout would understand this particular outcome.
But if moral heroes must have flaws and must have these sorts of failings, I would gladly choose to be one of this sort. Because even Atticus’ “failure” brought about the best outcome ultimately for all involved, and I believe that is because Atticus’ whole philosophy of life was one in which his community would raise his children with him. He didn’t try to go it alone.
Atticus intentionally had his whole community help raise Jem and Scout: in spite of their flaws and perhaps because of their flaws. He told Jem he would have had him read to Mrs. Dubose as she battled her morphine addiction before death regardless of the camellia incident. He wanted Jem to see her as the “bravest person [he] ever knew.” He encouraged Scout and Jem’s interactions with Miss Maudie – a neighbor whose genuine interest in the kids’ affairs would be evident, even on the heels of losing her possessions in a housefire. Disagreements with Aunt Alexandra notwithstanding, he chose to allow her to live with them to help Scout grow up and some day enter their society as a young woman. He let Uncle Jack discipline his daughter, even though he made a mistake with that, so that Scout could know her uncle – and perhaps so that Uncle Jack could also learn a thing or two about parenting. In spite of Aunt Alexandra’s protests, he insisted on Calpurnia staying with the family and continuing to influence his children, in spite of the fact that she was black – and maybe because she was black.
So at the end of the day, if Atticus failed, it wasn’t a tragic failure because Atticus’ whole life and family were situated at the center of a strong network of community support and friendship that could catch all of them if he should fall. He could listen to Heck Tate and be convinced by him, and Atticus could then dialogue with Scout and ask her if she understood their decisions.
I would love to be this kind of a parent – very concerned with the moral development of my children, but not ultimately the only one responsible for shaping them – because I’ve chosen to raise them in the context of a real, imperfect, yet earnest and loving community. Someday, I might be a working mother who cares deeply about her children’s welfare yet doesn’t have perfect judgment about every situation. I may not have the luxury of having household help or live near parents or close friends who would be willing to baby-sit – and I would have to trust our community to help me and my husband raise our kids. Atticus was a single parent of two and a bereaved widower, working a high-pressured job in which he made unpopular decisions that were often threatened by his community. If I were in a similar place, I would hope that I could take on such a challenging task with as much humility and humor as Atticus, and that I would live in a community that I could trust – even a community as flawed as Maycomb.
As long as we live and think the way we do, all of our communities will be variations on Maycomb – and our leadership will be borne out in contexts of uncertainty. May we view each other with eyes that see our world as it truly is, and yet partner together with real hope that our collective efforts to redeem this world and make it a better place for our children will succeed.
March 30, 2011