Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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What are the moral lessons Atticus teaches his children in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Atticus Finch teaches his children the following virtues: Charity, Social Justice, and Fortitude.

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Through both example and counsel, Atticus Finch teaches his children many virtues.

Charity   (Charity is a theological virtue by which people love God above all else and their "neighbor" as themselves out of their love for God.)   

When Scout comes home from her first day of school she does not want to return because she has been offended by her new teacher's remarks both about her and her father. She also feels that she has been unjustly punished and embarrassed in front of her classmates. Then, after listening to his daughter relate how she attempted to help Miss Caroline get to know certain students by explaining their backgrounds and habits, Atticus quickly realizes that the new teacher from Northern Alabama has felt humiliated by a first grader's display of such social expertise.

Atticus explains to Scout that she must return to school because he works every day and no one can teach her at home. He then counsels Scout to be charitable and respectful of Miss Caroline's feelings:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view..." (Ch.3)

Later, both during and following the trial of Tom Robinson, Atticus practices the virtue of charity and sets an example for Scout and her brother, Jem. He is kind when he interrogates Mayella, even though he knows that she is perjuring herself. Further, in chapter 22, when Bob Ewell spits on him after the trial, Atticus charitably "turns the other cheek" and does not retaliate against Ewell. 

Atticus's lesson on charity is also extended to Boo Radley. Earlier in the narrative Atticus urges Scout, Jem, and Dill to "stop bothering" Boo Radley.

Social Justice (This virtue is concerned with equal treatment of everyone and the common good.)

In his closing remarks of Tom Robinson's trial, Atticus Finch explicitly speaks of justice under the law and how the equal treatment of every citizen is required in a court of law. By referring to this legal concept of blind justice, he urges the jury to be fair to Tom Robinson in reaching a verdict based solely on the facts of the trial. 

Outside the courtroom, Atticus practices social justice as well. He is respectful of everyone. In chapter 3, for example, when little Walter Cunningham has dinner with the Finches and Scout ridicules his eating habits, Atticus shakes his head in disapproval. Taking her cue from Atticus, Calpurnia pulls Scout into the kitchen where she finishes the remainder of her meal. 

Furthermore, despite the insults hurled at his children and himself, Atticus is polite to Mrs. Dubose because he understands that she is ill. He respects the right of the Radleys to be reclusive, and he treats all others with whom he has contact respectfully. Atticus does not discriminate against anyone, regardless of the person's social status or color.

Fortitude (This virtue is demonstrated in perseverance during difficult and trying situations.)

Atticus Finch instructs his children on this virtue when he has Jem read to the ailing...

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Mrs. Dubose.  She later demonstrates fortitude in her final days because before she dies she withdraws from the morphine to which she has been addicted. Bravely, she chooses to die being "beholden to nothing and nobody." Atticus tells his children that he has wanted them to see "what real courage is."

Atticus himself demonstrates fortitude when he accepts the position of attorney for the defense of Tom Robinson. Knowing the scorn and ridicule that he will receive, Atticus still chooses to do what is right. It is in his speech about Mrs. Dubose that he subtly alludes to his own decision to defend Tom Robinson:

"It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." (Ch.11)

Although Atticus Finch is a rather unorthodox parent, he certainly sets a wonderful example for his children as a virtuous man.

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Atticus teaches his children responsibility, integrity, moral courage, and empathy.


Atticus is assigned to defend a black man during a time of extreme racial prejudice in the south. Most white lawyers of his day and time would be feel pressure from the white community to refuse to represent or defend a black man, but Atticus knows it is his job to defend Robinson to the best of his abilities and that is what he does.


There is a saying that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking. It is said of Atticus that he was “the same in his house as he is on the public streets” and Atticus tells Scout that he “couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man [Robinson].”

Moral Courage:

Moral courage means sticking to your convictions. Atticus takes on a fight that he knows he has very little chance of winning because it is the right thing to do. Atticus tells Jem the story of Mrs. Dubose to teach him about the power of moral courage.


By far, one of the greatest lessons for any child to learn is empathy for one’s fellow man/woman. Atticus teaches his children about empathy by getting them to consider how the other person feels. Atticus tells Scout, “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.” Atticus even shows empathy for the Bob Ewell after he spits in his face when he tells Jem to think about how Mr. Ewell must feel “I destroyed his last shred of credibility…The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does.”

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In Chapter 3, Atticus teaches Scout the importance of tolerance toward others, particularly Miss Caroline, when he offers the advice that

"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."  (Chapter 3)

In Chapter 5, Atticus stresses the need to respect a person's privacy when he orders the children to leave Boo Radley alone, to

"... stop tormenting that man."  (Chapter 5)

In Chapter 10, he teaches Jem and Scout a lesson in humility when they discover that their father has hidden his secret talent--that of being the finest marksman in Maycomb County. Miss Maudie explains how "People in their right minds never take pride in their talents," and Jem is quick to see that

     "Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!"  (Chapter 10)

Atticus displays how courage is not "a man with a gun in his hand" in Chapter 15 when he stands alone at the jail to protect Tom Robinson from the lynch mob. Scout recognizes the full significance of Atticus's actions later that night when

The full meaning of the night's events hit me and I began crying.  (Chapter 16)

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What lessons does Atticus teach throughout To Kill a Mockingbird to his family, neighbors, and community?

Atticus teaches his children many lessons, but the lesson on tolerance is already well explained.  He also taught the children about seeing beyond the obvious with people when he makes Jem read to Mrs. Dubose.  During that process, Jem learned to respect the old woman and understand that for all her faults that she also has strengths. When Mrs. Dubose dies, Jem truly wishes he had not known her because her death is more painful because he has learned to truly see her. Jem understands that message because at the end of the chapter, he is "fingering the wide petals" of the flower from Mrs. Dubose's garden, which indicates a level of respect he certainly didn't have for her before.

Most famously,  Atticus teaches his children about courage.  He doesn't ever tell them to act a certain way or that he sees courage in specific terms, but he does act courageously.  He puts himself in the middle of the conflict with Tom Robinson, an act so courageous that his brother compares him to Christ by making the comment "let this cup pass from you, eh?" (Chapter 9).  The children see this, and when their father is standing between the mob and Tom Robinson, the children stand with their father.  Certainly Jem would have understood the danger, and Scout understood enough to know something was wrong, and yet the children have learned from their father to act courageously.

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What lessons does Atticus teach throughout To Kill a Mockingbird to his family, neighbors, and community?

Primarily, Atticus teaches his children about tolerance, and he is an example of this to his neighbors and community through his interactions.  Although Atticus is assigned Tom Robinson's case, Atticus does his utmost to give Tom the best defense possible.  Color does not matter to Atticus Finch, and he tries to instill this in Scout and Jem.  He also teaches them to respect their elders, even if the elderly people are cranky and sometimes mean (such as Mrs. DeBose).  When Jem disrespects Mrs. DeBose by ripping  up her flowers (even though he was angry because she'd made a nasty remark about Atticus), Atticus makes Jem spend time reading to her.  It is only through this that Jem learns that the old woman suffers from terrible pain and is fighting a drug addiction.  By being forced to spend time with her, Jem learns to respect a woman in pain.  When the children are being busybodies about Boo Radley, Atticus sternly instructs them to leave Boo in peace and not to believe the rumors that are spread about the recluse.  Additionally, Atticus teaches the children not to judge those who do not have money.  When Walter Cunningham eats lunch with the Finch family and pours syrup on his dinner, Scout makes fun of him.  Atticus teaches her not to judge others and to try "walking around in their skin", or to put herself in their place.  Through this, Atticus is a model of respect, and the Cunningham family realizes this.

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What lessons does Atticus teach his children and how do the lessons help them?

Atticus gives great advice to his children throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, but he also allows them room for independent thought and actions that most kids their age would not enjoy. His advice to step into the other man's skin to understand how he thinks is repeated by both Scout and Jem on several occasions during the novel. He teaches his children to be tolerant of all people--rich or poor, black or white. He is honest and forthright with his children in the hope that they will follow his lead. He leads by example concerning faith in humanity with the expectation that his children will follow suit. He teaches them not to take too much stock in their own family heritage, yet they are still able to understand that some families--such as the Ewells and Cunninghams--are like peas in a pod. Through his actions--not words--he teaches them the definition of humility and gentlemanly behavior.

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What lessons does Atticus teach his children and how do the lessons help them?

One of the lessons that Scout learns is an important one in what you might call comportment, or maybe just plain old character.  She laments the fact that Atticus is so wimpy in her eyes, he does a semi-wimpy job and he never does anything to show himself as manly or tough.  She is really pretty bummed about this.

But then comes the incident with the rabid dog where Atticus demonstrates a steely nerve and people bring up how they used to talk about what a great shot he was.  She sees that her father is certainly as manly as the rest but he never makes a show of it.  She sees that you don't have to be a braggart or any kind of a publicly tough or powerful person to actually have great inner strength.

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