The Parable of Raising Jem and Scout: Compassionate Parenting

September 02, 2014

Reblogged from: I'm Just Saying

I received the “Dad of the Year” award this week. When I bring my girls to school we are often early, so we spend five minutes or so parked in the car pool line each morning. When the car is stopped I allow the girls to unbuckle and move about the minivan, but the deal is, when the car is moving the girls have to be in their seat. Wednesday morning the girls were being particularly cantankerous and they refused to sit in their seat while the car pool line was moving. Three times I said, “Get in your seat. Please sit down. Get back to your seat.” My vocal pleadings were getting nowhere, so I did what any reasonable father would do . . . I tapped the break. The girls went flying across the minivan. Annaleigh scraped her knee on something in the backseat and started to cry. So we get to the front of the line and I open the van door. The girls get out upset, crying, with just a hint of blood upon the knee, and I say, “Have a great day. I love you. Do well.” Epic Fail.

Being a parent is a sobering responsibility.

Atticus Finch is an amazing character, not only for his courage, but because of the way he is a father to Jem and Scout. Now, I’ve read parenting books and baby books and it seems the more you read you either become confused or depressed. You’re confused because this book says you should be doing this and the other book says that what that book says is wrong or antiquated or what have you. I can also remember coming home one day not long after Isabelle was born and Christie was in tears because one book basically said that our bedtime routine made us terrible parents. So, today’s message isn’t a parenting seminar; however scripture expressed through the scenes of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” gives us some really great wisdom.

First, our story offers the importance of holy habits. Early in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we hear of some family habits. Every day Jem and Scout meet Atticus at the end of the street at the end of the work day to walk home together. They eat together as a family. Atticus reads to Scout every evening before bed. There’s a definite rhythm to the day and to the year. Scout recounts this at the end of the book saying:

It was daytime and the neighborhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. It was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk toward a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.

The rhythm of life. The heartbeat of time. What are the things that we do together as a family? What are the life markers our children will remember? Will they remember the family playing games together or will they remember that mom and dad were busy all of the time? Will they remember getting ready for church every Sunday, or will they remember that Sunday is a day to distance yourself from the world, even the one who created the world? Children remember habits. Earlier this week I wrote about how lovely it would be if Jesus had kids because there may have been a more complete blueprint of what raising Christian children looks like. Jesus didn’t say, “You’ve heard it said that children wait until Sunday night to do their weekend homework, but I say unto you Children should do their homework Saturday morning,” or something like that.

This is a whole other sermon, but scripture doesn’t tell us everything we want to know, like how long my son should be out on the weekends or should my daughter play soccer or the piano. Scripture doesn’t tell us everything we want to know, but it does tell us everything we need to know. Scripture does tell us that we are to love God and love neighbor, we are to walk humbly, we are to eat with sinners, turn the other cheek, wash each other’s feet . . . when we start with what Jesus actually called us to do and allow these holy habits of love and service guide who we are, we will be able to handle life’s variables.

In addition to the importance of forming good habits, our story provides guidance when good habits are broken. Every night Scout and Atticus read together, and this gave Scout the ability to read since the day she was born, as she remembers it. When Scout enters the first grade, her teacher, Miss Caroline tells her that her father is to never read to her again because it’s the teacher’s job to teach a child how to read. Needless to say, Scout is quite upset. I would imagine that some parents would march right up to the school and schedule a meeting with the teacher and the principal. That’s not always the best way to handle conflict. I remember my sister one day in 5th grade science class. The teacher had complained to the students about their poor grades. She said that she was taking time away from her family to grade these papers and the least they could do is study. My sister promptly stood up and said, “Excuse me, m’am. You chose the profession.” We did have a meeting with the principal, but it wasn’t one that we had scheduled. Atticus sat with Scout on the front porch and said, “Do you know what a compromise is? It’s an agreement reached by mutual consent. Now, here’s the way it works. You concede the necessity of going to school, and we’ll keep on reading the same every night just as we always have. Is that a bargain?”

How do we handle conflict? Remember, our children will handle conflict in the same way they’ve seen conflict resolved. Imagine there are a parent and a child in a room with a large balloon. Then imagine that the balloon pops. The parent/child relationship is such that the child will almost always run to the parent when something out of the ordinary happens. The variable of the situation lies in how the parent treats the child. On one extreme you have the parent who says, “Get over it,” and on the other extreme you have the parent who says, “You will never have to face another balloon ever again. Most of the time the child will mirror or mimic what they experience and see in the parent. Children are like little mirrors, which reflect both a parent’s greatest features and greatest failures. The other day, Cecilia stuck her hand out and said, “Enough!” I thought to myself, “That’s rather forceful, where did she learn that . . . oh . . .” In terms of tension some like to talk it out, others like to meditate and think about what they are feeling, just please know that however it is that you are programed to deal with tension, the children are watching. Now, it’s not perfect. Sometimes I look at my own children and think, “We’ve talked about this!” But the nut doesn’t fall as far from the tree as we sometimes would like to believe.

Holy habits are important. Modeling a healthy way of dealing with tension is important. It’s also important to get creative with discipline. Halfway through the novel, Scout gets in a skirmish with a boy who called Atticus an ugly word. When Uncle Jack hears Scout repeat said word, he whips her several times. The conversation went like this:

“You’re real nice, Uncle Jack, an’ I reckon I love you even after what you did, but you don’t understand children much. Well, in the first place you never stopped to gimme a chance to tell you my side of it—you just lit right into me. When Jem and I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine too, and in the second place you told me never to use words like that except in extreme provocation, and Francis provocated me enough to knock his block off.”

There was a family in which dad and daughter did not get along. One day the daughter broke the rules in a grand and unexpected way. Mom intervened with a creative punishment. Instead of spanking her within an inch of her life, she grounded her for the entire semester. Now she could still go to the movies, hang out with friends, and go to parties, but . . . she had to bring her father with her. If she wanted to go to the movies, Dad had to sit with her. If she wanted to go to dinner with her friends, Dad had to be there. If she wanted to go to the after dance party, Dad had to stand by her. Is there anything worse for a high schooler than to go to a party with her father? Well, the lesson was learned with an interesting side effect. The daughter learned a deep respect for the rules and she regained a new and powerful relationship with her father.

Spare the rod, spoil the child? Not in the Bible, at least, it’s a harmful paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 which says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” Now I am not going to say to you, “I do not spank my children, and you shouldn’t either.” First of all, it’s condescending. Second of all, it would be a lie. What this verse means is that our children need rules and consequences. Otherwise we leave them in a perpetual guessing game. Is this ok? Is that ok? Our discipline needs to be creative. Spanking a child because she hit someone is at best confusing. Is spanking ok? I think if someone is going at an outlet with a fork in his hand, swatting his hand and his bottom in one fail swoop is a good idea. Now I’m not telling you to spank your children. Neither am I telling you not to spank your children. I’m saying as Christians we are to be creative in the way we discipline our children.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” I feel that it would be helpful as parents that when we are called upon to discipline our children we should keep in mind that when Jesus saw children, he saw the kingdom of heaven. How does that affect the way we handle discipline?

Finally, our story communicates the importance of eating together. Every day the Finch family gathers for a meal. There is almost no more important act that we can do as a Christian community. Eating together as a family seems to be a dying art in our culture because families are going in one hundred different directions. Habits, or the Means of Grace, give us our identity, and the chief of these habits, or as John Wesley put it, the Grand Channel, is communion—eating together. Gathering around a table with our friends, our enemies, with all of those who call Christ, Lord, is our identity as children of God. Eating together as a family and as members of Christ’s family provides for us a moment of connection, reflection, and most importantly, God’s grace.

Who is the perfect parent? It’s not I, nor would I imagine it being you. Parenting is the definition of “on the job training.” Scripture through the lens of the powerful characters of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” call us to instill honest habits and habitual honesty. They beckon us to resolve conflict in a holy and Christian way. They challenge us to be creative in our discipline. It commands us to eat together in Christian communion. Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.