Lessons From To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s blockbuster novel (if there was such a thing in 1960) that helped shift America’s view of desegregation turns 50 this year. Have you read it? Seen the movie? It’s the classic story of 6-year-old Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, a lawyer in the deep South who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

We’re living in crazy, difficult times. Parenting is more complicated than ever, and the struggle to communicate values and social responsibility to our kids in a world that seems polarized and sometimes value-less can be daunting. It’s worth looking back at cultural benchmarks to consider past lessons learned.

When To Kill a Mockingbird topped best-seller lists in 1960 protesters were organizing sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters, an all-white high school in Little Rock had enrolled nine African-American students, and activists were taking Freedom Rides to integrate public transportation throughout the South. The civil rights movement was under way.

The story is told by Scout, a fearless and spunky little girl growing up without a mother, who learns lessons about courage and doing what’s right while she and her brother, Jem, lose their child-like innocence during a hot summer of the Great Depression. Two stories unfold in tandem: one focuses on Scout and Jem and their fascination with the eccentric, sometimes scary characters in town, while the other follows Atticus and the isolation he faces as he defends his client in the Jim Crow South.

There are countless messages for today’s kiddos in this compelling story, but Harper Lee herself said, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct.”

Racism. African-American children and adults were not safe in the America of the 1930’s (OR 1960’s) — solely because of the color of their skin. Atticus Finch stood up to do the right thing in spite of the social pressure against it.

Class. The story explores disparity of class as well as race. Scout tells her tale from a clearly middle-class perspective, drawing her readers into the story, but at the same time she heeds Atticus’ warning not to judge people from other circumstances until you’ve walked in their shoes.

Courage. Scout displays her feisty courage throughout the story as she stands up to the dark forces, and Atticus teaches a central truth when he tells Jem, “Courage is when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what”.

Compassion. From Tom Robinson (Atticus’ unjustly-accused client), to Boo Ridley (the neighborhood recluse feared by Scout and Jem), to little Dill (a misfit child visiting his aunt in town for the summer), Scout and Jem learn and demonstrate the value of empathy for others.

Gender. Scout’s mother died when she was too young to remember her, and she’s growing up in a man’s world. Destined to become an early Southern feminist, she clearly embodies the more traditionally masculine qualities of individualism, bravery, and dedication to social justice. No girly Southern Belle here.

The rule of law. The meaning of laws, written and unwritten, are at the heart of this book. Does the law only protect the privileged? Do our cultural rules trump the law of the land? How do our social codes change over time, and what are the unintended consequences of those changes? Atticus (and Gregory Peck in the film) represents the best our laws have to offer, and that inspires us.

The death of innocence. Each character in the story loses a good measure of naivete along the way. In the end they see the world as a more complicated, yet richer, place. Without ruining the ending, it’s inevitable that virtue does not always triumph, and truth doesn’t always win. Yet Scout learns that most human beings, while misunderstood, want to do the right thing.

And then there’s that title … the symbol of the mockingbird represents the theme of innocence. Mockingbirds never harm other living creatures, they only provide music with their songs. When Atticus gives Scout and Jem air rifles for Christmas (remember, this is Alabama in the mid-20th century) he warns that, while they can set their sights on all the bluejays they want, they must never kill a mockingbird. It is a sin.

The story returns to this again and again, as innocents like Tom Robinson are faced with circumstances of tragedy and defeat and struggle to rise above them. And don’t let the family name — Finch — go unnoticed.

Powerful lessons for our kids? You bet. So consider going back and re-reading this modern classic through your parent eyes. Or, better yet, start a new bedtime ritual and cuddle up as a family to read it aloud. The movie’s awesome, too, and offers a great “compare and contrast” opportunity when you’ve finished the book.  

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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