How does Atticus set a good example to Scout by defending Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Atticus Finch shows himself as a good moral exemplar to Scout in several ways, most of all by being a firm, but loving, father to Scout and Jem. Though Atticus insists his children study hard, respect their elders, including the African-American maid Calpurnia, and behave respectfully toward one another and their neighbors, he takes pleasure in their youthful behaviors.
Of course the most dramatic experience of Atticus' moral influence on Scout is when Atticus defends the black laborer Tom Robinson, who is accused of rape by the teenager Mayella Ewell (backed by Mayella's alcoholic and abusive father, Bob Ewell). Though it is quite obvious to any objective viewer that Tom is innocent, during this era in the American South the mere word of a white person against a black person was often enough to garner a conviction, regardless of the truth.
Atticus explains to Scout the bigotry that was so widespread in the town where the Finches lived, and how to rise above it:
"Scout," said Atticus, "nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything—like snot-nose. It's hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody."
"You aren't really a nigger-lover, then, are you?"
"I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody... I'm hard put, sometimes—baby, it's never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn't hurt you."
Atticus acts as a positive role model for Scout by standing up for what is right in front a prejudiced community. He courageously chooses to defend Tom Robinson because he is morally convicted of doing so and wants to teach his children the importance of following one's conscience under difficult circumstances. Despite his impossible odds of winning the case, Atticus tells Scout, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win" (Lee 101). By defending Tom, Atticus is teaching Scout the value of perseverance and determination. Atticus also encourages Scout to be tolerant of their neighbors, despite their difference in opinion. Atticus remains calm under pressure and dismisses the community's derogatory comments and threats. Scout has the opportunity to witness "real courage" by watching Atticus valiantly defend Tom. In Chapter 15, Atticus explains to Scout that real courage is "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what" (Lee 149). Atticus also teaches Scout the importance of defending and protecting innocent beings. Atticus knew Tom was innocent, and he tried his best to win the case. Scout learns it is a privilege to protect the weak and vulnerable members of society, and she should never hesitate to come to their defense.