Scout and Jem’s moral growth is a highlighted entity in the novel where as the novel progresses, the children’s maturity process subsequently progresses. Lee constructs different passageways and hurdles in the children’s lives which influences their growth and understanding of their own community as well as the outer world. Their childish innocence consisting of arbitrary observations gradually develops into knowledge and empathy – elements that serve a crucial value later in the novel.
In the beginning of the novel, Scout and Jem are introduced in their pre-adolescent stages where Lee conforms their understanding as only superficial. They visualise their neighbours with the coloured up fantasy of a child – relating the cantankerous Mrs. Dubose as the ‘meanest old woman who ever lived’. Arthur Radley is called a ‘malevolent phantom’, where the children also devise their own adaptation of neighbourhood gossip, ‘Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo…he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch… what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.’ The children enact dramas around him, daring each other to trespass the Radley house while trying to bring him out for ‘ice-cream’. Dill’s involvement in their lives stirs up their curiosity which allows them to explore the mysterious entity of Arthur Radley. Through small steps, they reveal Arthur as more than just a said ‘malevolent phantom’, from a shadow to a small laughter to gifts in an old tree hole to rescuer of innocence and finally to a ‘gentleman’, Arthur’s conversion of character consequently brings about the children’s own mental development. Scout understands how ‘it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’ for at the very end of the novel when Atticus ‘bends the law’ to save Arthur from publicity after he kills Bob to save the children, he asks Scout whether she knew why he had to do it, at which Scout replies, ‘Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?’ When Atticus first tells the children to not ‘kill a mockingbird’, Miss Maudie demystifies the matter by explaining: ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.’ Scout, with her newfound knowledge, understands that mockingbirds represent the harmless helpers in society and that’s why you need to protect them.
In the episode where Atticus and the children are faced with the lynch mob, the children understand that there is an inherit goodness in people, despite their ulterior motives. When the lynch mob threatened the lives of the children, and Scout couldn’t understand what was going on, she finds a familiar face within the mob, having had his son for dinner in their house, and recalls Atticus’s lesson of politeness, ‘Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.’ When she talks to Walter Cunningham about entailments, the mob feels embarrassed and Walter becomes a gentlemanly character. He tells them to return back, saving the life of Tom and preventing possible injuries to the children and Atticus.
The children learn how people are not always what they seem to be; what society makes them to be. This is shown not only through their experience with Mrs. Dubose, who they learn was more than just ‘plain hell’, but rather a fighter who defeated her addiction to morphine so that she could leave the world ‘beholden to nothing and no one’. Dolphus Raymond stands as another representation, where he is deemed as a drunkard by society. When Dill feels sick having seen the unfairness of society, Scout and Dill go outside of the courtroom and meet up with Dolphus, who offers Dill a drink from his bag. Scout becomes horrified, having known that Dolphus carries whiskey in his bag, but he then assures her that it’s just Coca-Cola. He explains how this was his way of giving society a valid reason to hate him, rather than just pointing out at him for having mixed children, ‘I try to give ‘em a reason, you see. It helps folks if they can latch on to a reason…Secretly, Miss Finch, I’m not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live.’
The children acknowledge the intense prejudice in their community during the scene of court. Their father being involved in the contemporary case of a young white girl being allegedly raped by a black man leads to the children having to face racism in small acts, such as hearing their father being called ‘nigger-lovers’ and such. Scout with her competitiveness would attack any name callers, but refrained from doing so after her father told her not to anymore, ‘Atticus so rarely asked Jem and me to do something for him, I could take being called a coward for him.’ Jem, however did attack Mrs. Dubose’s garden when she calls their father incompetent and a ‘nigger-lover’. The court scene epitomised the prejudicial influence in Maycomb county where the innocence of Tom becomes translucent, but he is still charged as guilty. The children experience how sometimes you will lose even if it’s unfair.
The children’s innocence is often times threatened by the prejudiced community, where Bob Ewell attacks them as revenge for Atticus tarnishing his social image, if he even had any. But the children do understand certain issues and attain crucial lessons, most of which are from Atticus. They understand who losing is inevitable when faced by bias, how people are not always what their superficial shells portray, how courage is not a ‘man with a gun in his hand’, and how it is your societal duty to protect the mockingbirds, and present them as the ‘gentleman’ they truly are.