A precocious 3-year-old encounters Morocco

The past year of my 3-year-old's life has been spent exploring Morocco. The engaging Arabic culture has embraced Gwen and exposed her to its melodious language, vibrant sights, and intriguing traditions.

For me, it's a dream come true. Raised in a Foreign Service family, I had always fantasized about living my adult years overseas and sharing unique experiences with my husband and offspring.

Since our arrival in Morocco, my child has taken the lead and is sharing these experiences with me. I am learning to listen to my daughter and realize that I must relinquish control of situations that do not inherently belong to me.

When we first arrived in Morocco, we worried about our ability to communicate. Having never before lived in an Arab country, we feared committing major cultural gaffs through ignorance.

Gwen forced our social contact as soon as we stepped from the safety of our apartment. Strangers would extol the beauty of our blond-haired child and rapidly move to bestow a kiss on her not-so-willing cheek. Gwen responded by scaling my body and refusing to make eye contact.

Afraid that our silence might be an affront, I would make our excuses in haphazard, self-conscious French while anxiously hoping that Gwen would peep out from the safety of my shoulder or grunt loud enough to satisfy our new "friends."

I expected anger or disappointment, but Moroccans were undeterred by Gwen's shyness. In admiration, they would reach out to touch her cheek, and, as though appreciating properly prepared couscous, bring their fingertips to their lips in a satisfied kiss.

This was to be my first lesson in Morocco: I could encourage compassion, keep Gwen out of harm's way, and teach her the importance of etiquette in her new home, but I also needed to allow her the freedom to develop her individuality. I could see she was not going to tackle every situation as I deemed proper.

I admit to occasional culture shock, but Gwen pulls me back to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. The muezzin's amplified call to prayer pierces the din of the evening rush hour. Gwen reverently finds a place to sit, pats the ground next to her and orders, "Mommy, sit! The man in the mosque calls people to prayer."

While I focus on the street, seeing only plastic sacks filled with odorous kitchen waste, Gwen is noticing the beautiful orange sky colors as "the sun goes down and the moon goes up."

Gwen has also assumed characteristics that I find unusually observant for a little girl her age. She is fascinated by our housekeeper's traditional headdress and notices other such "hats" when she watches covered women pass by in the street.

She fondly remembers her own experience with henna painting when she sees intricately tattooed hands and feet peek out from the folds of a woman's djellaba, a traditional Moroccan dress. Gwen has also learned incredible patience while sitting through the lengthy negotiations of a carpet purchase.

As a "junior shopper," she now knows that cookies and popcorn are essential bargaining tools to an improved state of mind. And at the end of the day, Gwen appreciates the ritual of sharing a glass of mint tea.

When I take the time to really listen to my daughter, I learn more about the wonderful life that surrounds us. I also realize that she is her own person, independent from me.

If I get caught up in my world, I miss her amazement when she discovers a crayon-shaped button on her sweater; is captivated by the head-swirling gnaoua dancers, who float down the street playing their castanets and begging for alms; or when she pauses before my fledgling watercolor attempts and exclaims with heartfelt enthusiasm, "Mommy, that's beautiful."

It's tricky finding the balance between reining in objectionable behavior and allowing this blithe spirit the freedom to flap her wings. My goal is to learn how to stand back so that she will soar safely, with confidence and passion.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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