How is Atticus an imperfect parent in To Kill a Mockingbird? How do these imperfections make him an even better parent to Jem and Scout?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most parents are not perfect, but although Atticus’s children find him somewhat disappointing, he tries his best to be a good father.  First of all, Atticus is raising his kids on his own.  Aunt Alexandra does not approve of the fact that Scout does not have a woman’s influence in her life and Atticus lets her wander around in overalls.  However, the fact that he lets Scout be a tomboy and express her individuality actually makes him a pretty good father by most measures.

Another reason that Atticus might be lacking is his unusual parenting style.  Most children do not call their father by his first name.  Why he has them do this is not ever really clear.  Maybe he just doesn’t like the word “Dad.”  The children are never familiar or disrespectful.  They actually call him “Sir” most of the time.

Scout explains her life this way.

We lived on the main residential street in town— Atticus, Jem and I, plus Calpurnia our cook. Jem and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment. (Ch. 1)

“Courteous detachment” means that Atticus gives his kids quite a bit of freedom.  However, freedom to play and run around is important for a child.  That is how children learn.  Scout and Jem may not be well-supervised during the summer, but they grow into adults through their antics then.

Scout and Jem in particular do not like the fact that their father does not spend as much time with them as they would like because he works a lot.  They are also concerned that he is too old to play with them physically or spend time with them the way they would like.  Basically, Scout and Jem feel he is boring.

Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries… (Ch. 10) 

Atticus keeps some of life secret from his children.  They have no idea that he can shoot a gun better than anyone in the county until he has to shoot the mad dog.  They also do not really understand the complexities of Maycomb’s racist justice system until he defends Tom Robinson.  His children become the target of many of the townspeople’s disgusted taunts, but he is never really specific about what he is doing.  This is the reason his children end up in the company of a lynch mob one night. 

Fortunately for his children, Atticus sets a good example.  He has given them enough independence and provided them with a moral compass, so he can trust in their decisions.  They learn how the world works and their places in it as they grow up, and they both turn into pretty good people.  Jem demonstrates that he is not a racist during the trial, and Scout shows that she can have empathy for others through her treatment of Boo Radley.

The situation in Maycomb was hardly ideal for raising children when Scout and Jem were growing up, and Atticus had to do it alone.  However, he treated them with dignity and respect and taught them to treat everyone else the same way, regardless of race or class.   

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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