My sophomores are again reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and again, we are all loving the experience. It is such an amazing book on so many levels. The story is wonderful; the writing is beautiful; and the lesson is oh so important. Even though I’ve read the book multiple times, I always find something new to marvel at.
One of the ongoing criticisms Atticus endures is that he is not a strict enough parent. His kids run loose in the summer and “sass” adults and his daughter, Scout, who is 6 when the book begins won’t wear dresses. In fact the surest way to involve her in a prank is to tell her she’s becoming more and more like a girl.
The interesting thing is that these are wonderful kids. They spend their summers either performing stories that they’ve read or writing plays of their own. They explore and discover all the time. They are polite to the “annoying” adults in their life, but it strains them to be so. They are advanced in their education because their father has read to them from newspapers and law books every evening of their lives. They are kids getting in the kind of minor trouble kids get into. They have tempers and senses of humor and opinions and Atticus honors those opinions and their individuality.
The book always affects me in multiple ways. This time it is making me think about my teaching and my interaction with my students, their parents, other staff. In a conversation with his brother Jack, Atticus explains a couple of key points about his parenting. First Atticus says, “When a child asks you something, answer him for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.” What simple advice, and oh so true. I watch my teenagers when their parents or teachers or I start giving them long explanations as to why or why not they should do something. The glaze in their eyes comes quickly and I can see the Charlie Brown moment: blah, blah, blah. My best success with my kids is when I’m open, direct, and honest. They always respond the same.
When Jack continues to chastise Atticus for not being more corporal in his punishment with Scout, Atticus says that she does the best she can. She doesn’t always succeed, but she always tries. Jack says that’s not the solution and Atticus responds, “She knows I know she tries.” I think how simple that is. We tell kids all the time that we learn from mistakes; that’s mostly the way we learn. But so many times we focus on the mistake instead of the effort. I’m pretty good at positive reinforcement and praise and recognition of effort. I’m going to do better. I’m going to do more.
There is lots of interesting “stuff” in this book about parenting and education and bigotry and commitment and integrity. If you’re looking for a wonderful present, give this book to everyone you know. If you’re looking for a perfect gift, spend some time each day reading it together as a family. It will touch your lives in a very profound way. And everyone might learn something about life and respect and love.