My Mom's Parenting Style Drove Me Crazy—Until I Became a Parent

"I Got It From My Momma" honors mothers and mother figures of every stripe, with one new essay appearing each day until Mother's Day.  

Photo: Courtesy of Glynis Costin

We used to call my mom “Atticus” after the dad in the book To Kill a Mockingbird. (Played beautifully by Gregory Peck in the film.) Atticus, Harper Lee’s wise lawyer, often counseled his kids, Scout and Gem, to consider other people’s point of view—and so did my mom.

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Atticus told his daughter one day. “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."

We were convinced my mom was somehow related to this fictional Atticus and referred to her as “Atticus Part 2.”

“Walk around in the other person’s shoes awhile,” she would say when my brother, sister, or I were particularly outraged by a perceived slight. “Try to see that person's side of things. Look at it from their perspective.”

When I was a kid, I found this extremely infuriating. I’d tell her about a “crime” or transgression that someone had committed—like how Betsy ate half my sandwich at school without even asking. All I wanted was for my mom to say, “That mean Betsy! How could she do such a thing? I’m so sorry.”

But instead, she would say something like “Well, maybe Betsy’s mom accidentally forgot to make her breakfast and she was so hungry that she couldn’t stop herself from eating half of your PB&J. That wasn’t very nice of her not to ask first, but we wouldn’t want Betsy to be hungry would we?”


VIDEO: 10 Celebrities Who Are Novelists

My mother's extreme tolerance became untenable when I was in the fourth grade. One night, I realized that I was missing several book reports that were due the next day at school. I looked everywhere and could not figure out where they were. I finally gave up and just rewrote them. A few days later, I was playing hide and seek with my best friend Amy when I stumbled across my missing book reports under her bed. There they were, plain as day, written using different colored felt tip pens (an obsession of mine those days) and all included my signature clearly at the bottom.

I couldn’t believe it. My best friend had not only stolen something from me—but something that could have affected my grades! I was so shocked that I couldn’t even say anything to her about it. Instead of confronting her I told her I didn’t feel good (which was true) and had to go home.

I rode my bike home, still in shock, sick with disappointment and a sense of betrayal. My mom was in the kitchen making dinner when I shared the shocking news.

“How could she DO this to me?” I vented.

True to form, “Atticus 2” told me that instead of getting mad at Amy—I should try to understand WHY she might have done what she did. “Maybe she can’t write reports as quickly or as well as you can and she felt bad about that and perhaps she wanted to see them to help her write her own?” my mom suggested, calmly stirring a pot on the stove. “I think instead of starting out with anger you should ask her about why she did this instead. And then find it in your heart to forgive her. You don’t want to lose her as your best friend, do you?”

This was too much to bear.

“Why do you always take the other person's side?” I wailed, storming off to my room and slamming the door. Then, for emphasis, I opened it again and yelled into the hallway. “She STOLE from me! And I could have gotten an F!”

I flung myself dramatically across my green and white checked bedspread. A few moments later, my mom came not my room, sat the end of the bed and quietly explained that she wasn’t taking Amy’s side and she understood why I was upset. She agreed that what Amy had done was wrong, but added that she was simply trying to help me understand what might have made my friend act the way she did and help me find a way to deal with it that would not hurt our friendship. As upset as I was, I now know she was right, of course.

I can’t even remember how my eventual confrontation/conversation with Amy went, but I forgave her and we remained friends for many years after that until we gradually lost touch after she moved away.

Throughout my childhood, my siblings and I experienced many, many other “Atticus” moments. Did I learn from my mother to see the world from other’s perspectives? To not jump to conclusions? To try to understand and to forgive? Have I passed that lesson down to my own children?

Well, my daughters don’t call me “Atticus,” but they do complain that I “take the other person’s side” too much. When I say things like “I’m not excusing what happened, I’m just trying to help you understand WHY it happened,” they get annoyed, but I just laugh and tell them: “I got that from my mom.”

And by the way, one of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird. I got that from her too.

Related Articles