“To Kill a Mockingbird” establishes the role of parenthood through the lives of different characters. Parenting constructs the attitudes of a child when faced with the realities of life, and Harper Lee presents this idea by identifying how good parenting ensures healthy growth and bad parenting can drastically alter a child’s normal life.
Atticus is an embodiment of the true sense of parenting. He offers his life as an example of guidance for his children, where his children are not enforced on the idea of maturity but rather show what being a good human being is really like. From the beginning, we see a comfortable relationship between the children and their father, where the children call him by his name. Atticus accepts this, which reinforces his belief of seeing everyone, even his own children, as equals. Atticus does not shelter his children from the sensitive aspects of life when Scout asks him what ‘rape’ meant and he defines it as “carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” He explains it to Scout in it’s dictionary meaning, and even though Scout didn’t completely understand the term, it was satisfactory enough. When the children’s uncle Jack contradicts Atticus’s belief of openness and provides a misleading description of what the term ‘whore-lady’ meant, Atticus lectures him on the proper way of guiding children, further commenting on Atticus’s parenting skills, “Jack! When a child asks you something, answer him… but don’t make production out of it. Children are children and they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.”
Atticus instils the idea of kindness and compassion within the children through two of his most famous statements, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” and “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” He gives the children an idea about true moral courage through Mrs. Dubose, who’s battle with her addiction symbolised that courage was not a ‘man with a gun in his hand’, but rather fighting even when you know you might not win. This ideal is later solidified through Atticus’s fight against a corrupt justice system when defending an innocent black man. Atticus stands up to his words, and when given his turn to interrogate Mayella Ewell, who’s socially seen as a ‘white trash’, Atticus sympathises with her situation and behaves gently which makes Mayella believe he was brow-beating her as she never had someone behave nicely with her. Not only does this teach the children the ethics of proper behaviour, but also portrays the idea of compassion and sympathy, where Atticus doesn’t need to directly implement it into them as they already learn everything of life from his actions.
As a father, Atticus is watchful of his children and protects them in times of crisis. When he faces the lynch mob and the children and Dill interfere, Atticus’s resilient attitude turns to fear, “A flash of plain fear was going out of his eye, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light,” “…but he was moving slowly, like an old man… with lingering fingers. They were trembling.” These hints showcase the vulnerability of Atticus when the safety of his children are compromised. He becomes completely numb, and after the lynch mob departs Atticus leans ‘his face to the wall’ of the jailhouse, and when Scout approaches him, he ‘produced his handkerchief, gave his face a going-over and blew his noise violently’ – indicating he was possibly crying. Atticus behaves according to his parental authority, instilling proper behaviour and showing what being a humanitarian is about, and most importantly, caring for them.
Harper Lee presents parental relationship through the Ewells and the Radleys as well. Bob Ewell is labelled as a ‘white trash’ by society. The reason for this can be seen through the unruly lifestyle of the Ewells, where Bob is shown a drunkard who neglects and abuses his children. Being the oldest child, Mayella has to tend to her siblings, live in isolation which isolates her and causes her to be desperate for friendship. When he catches Mayella with Tom, Bob purposely beats her up, inflicting severe bruises, forces her to lie, drags her down to utter humiliation and uses her to show his own power over an honest black man, specifically to gain public notoriety. The Ewell household display the most unhealthy parent-child relationship
Mr. Radley stands as a sadist who destroys his child, Arthur, for a harmless teenage prank. Being too taken up by family pride, Radley gives Arthur a punishment worse than death – solitary confinement – which thwarts Arthur’s mental and physical growth and by condemning him to a life of seclusion, tns him into a living dead. Mr. Radley represents the most selfish and arrogant parenthood who can sacrifice a young son for his personal ego. All the other parental figures of the novel instil their ideas into their children, and guide their behaviour relative to their own. This is shown through Walter Cunnigham, who refrains from taking charity which he won’t be able to pay back later, as influenced by his father’s ideology. Then there is Dill and his step-father who apparently gives him everything he might need except for the sense of belonging which Jem and Scout have.
Harper Lee contrasts parental authority through Atticus and all the other parental figures of the novel who misuse it through ignorance and cruelty. Atticus epitomises a healthy parental relationship, and shows what true parenting is – that is, you have power but you do not misuse it; you are ‘One-shot Finch’ and you keep it within yourself because you are a gentleman.