This year was my first time reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a teacher. We have been reading it in my grade eight English class and each reading is a revelation. The more I think about it, the more I feel that the book is as much about racism, equality, legal rights and courtroom drama as it is about parenting. I read it first as a child, may be when I was 15. I am now reading it as a parent.
The problem with parenting books is that they usually tell you what to do, and they often make children appear to be a problem and adults, the solution bearers. But I have found, fumbling through most of my parenting career of five and a half years, that the problem, very often, is me.
In my first time in Atticus Finch’s world as a parent, I realized how much I needed to grow. This small town lawyer and widower is arguably fiction’s greatest father. He is neither hands-on nor a stay-at-home dad, but he parents his 10-year-old son Jem and his daughter Scout (6), with a demeanor that most of us can only strive for.
50 years and 30 million copies of course counts for a lot in book’s success as a literary piece of work. But in its core, Harper Lee’s book is a “show, not tell” parenting book that hardly ever even uses the word ‘parenting’ in it.
I could see my class was as in awe of Atticus as I, and so I gave them a little assignment. I asked them to describe Atticus Finch without using a single adjective. They all wondered why. Everyone loves adjectives, they are our crutches. Giving labels to things and people simplifies the process of decoding them. And then I told them that was exactly what the book doesn’t do. It never tells us, it only shows.
Here are just a few things they came up with:
1. He knows how to treat everyone equally and with politeness.
2. When he is in a crisis, he doesn’t panic
3. He is a parent who doesn’t control his children’s life.
4. He lets his children discover their life for themselves, and just suggests or advises them when they steer away from their path.
5. He doesn’t have a wife, but he makes his children feel so comfortable and ‘at home’ that they never feel the need for a new mom.
6. He lets his children call him by his name so that they feel like equals.
7. Though he has his own secrets, he doesn’t keep anything from his children that doesn’t need to be kept away from them.
8. He believes that appearance and background should never be of any importance while judging a person; what mattered were his thoughts and actions.
9. He thinks that if you have patience, you can accomplish anything.
10. He believes that everybody should have the same rights, irrespective of who they are or where they come from.
11. He is always prepared for any upcoming situation and knows how to act.
12. Whatever the situation, he keeps calm.
13. He looks at many aspects of a situation before coming to any conclusion.
14. He keeps his tone under control and never lets his anger rise.
15. He always tells his children to keep their heads high.
16. He never feels embarrassed or puts anyone in an embarrassing situation.
17. He always makes sure no one is hurt by his remarks.
18. He looks at things from the other person’s point of view and encourages his children to do so.
19. He manages and divides his time between his work and his children very well.
20. He treats both his children equally even though they are of opposite genders.
21. He doesn’t spend much time with his children, but never lets them feel neglected.
22. He believes in the strength of his kids.
23. He always stands up for the truth and inspires his children to do so.
24. He listens to other people and their opinions and he never thinks that he is right all the time.
25. He always answers all his children’s questions truthfully, even if they are difficult.
26. He makes sure his children’s life was not affected by his work as a lawyer.
27. He gives his children their space and time.
28. He is a brave man, although he doesn’t believe in violence.
29. He trusts his children to do the right thing.
What lies in the above lines is the simple, yet complex beauty of the parenting philosophy of Atticus Finch. I didn’t write this, my students did. And they are children. Atticus makes you believe that it is possible to raise courageous, resilient, fair and empowered children and prepare them for treachery of adulthood without letting go of their innocence. As long as you know when to give them the right answers and when to trust their instincts to find them.
Parenting is about a lot of things. But mostly, it is about courage and bravery. And it takes bravery to trust your children. And that’s why I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 9th March, 2015)