SUKA Society was interview recently by Natalie Heng to share on UNICEF’s Teach Respect Campaign. The article was featured on The Star’s Parenthots on the 11 of January 2012 –

Respect, should you look the term up, refers to the state of feeling or showing a high regard for something. Ask someone what their definition of respect is, however, and you will find the term surprisingly difficult to articulate.

‘It’s not just for adults, respect is for children too,’ says Yubanraj Dharmaraja, 18. Anderson Selvasegaram, executive director of Suka Society, a children’s welfare organisation (Suka stands for Suara Kanak-Kanak or Children’s Voice), knows what respect means but his attempts at explaining it are not any different from most people’s.

“It’s when someone …” he pauses, giving himself a moment to think. “You mean a standard definition?” he smiles. “Well, most of the time, when you treat me well … I treat you well, it’s normally conditional,” he concludes.

After spending a day asking children what they think of the term, trying to answer the question himself seems to take Anderson by surprise. Despite the difficulties we have explaining it, there seems to be something inherent about having a sense of “respect.” Whether it is for a precious object, a set of customs and traditions, people, or the rule of law, respect cuts across cultures, societies and continents. It forms the foundations from which a just and smooth-running society can be built, by governing interactions between people and allowing us to live harmoniously. For it to work, however, respect must be reciprocated. ‘Adults have to make sure they show respect to everyone, regardless of stature or status,’ says Anderson Selvasegaram.

Anderson recently invited some youth and children who have been involved in the society’s previous projects to share their thoughts on what the word means to them. As Anderson so succinctly points out, our willingness to give respect is usually based on the condition that we, in return, receive it.

Young Kumaresen Krishnan, a 14-year-old from Selangor, can’t agree more: “I must respect someone and then I will get respect back.” Age aids us in our ability to articulate our thoughts, however, and gradually our understanding of respect becomes less based on instinct, and more on logic. “It’s not just for adults, respect is for children too,” says Yubanraj Dharmaraja, 18, also from Selangor.

The point, says Anderson, is that adults are furnished with the knowledge, logic and life experiences to help them understand when they have crossed the line, and on which the other side lies discrimination, the antithesis of respect. That’s how things should work in theory anyway. In reality, adults discriminate all the time, against skin colour, physical appearance, disability, social status, beliefs, the list goes on.

The trouble is such prejudices are often passed on by adults to their children who, not knowing any better, end up discriminating against other children. Seemingly innocuous, perhaps even “cute,” names can sometimes prove hurtful; depending on the tone with which it is said, it can seem like everyone is “ganging up against you.” Chubby little Paul Matthew James Kennedy from Sri Gombak in Selangor is nine. He feels his friends act disrespectfully by calling him names, one of which is “polar bear.” Whether they realise it or not, calling Paul that makes the lad very sad.

Name-calling, mimicry or poking fun at someone may seem like fun and games, but depending on the circumstances, Anderson says it can cause children to feel isolated and discriminated against. Being called “polar bear” may sound like a small matter, but should that discrimination be based on another child’s social status, a HIV medical condition or a disfigurement, the duty of teaching children to respect others, no matter what their differences, takes on a more serious tone.

This was the basis behind a series of short cartoons launched by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Malaysia late last year, as part of a “Teach Respect” campaign. The videos show school children being discriminated against by their classmates, and the bullying comes across as innocent. However, one of the cartoon characters clearly feels sad and isolated in each of the videos. Fun and games, children may not realise on their own, can lead to real psychological and emotional damage for their victims. “They don’t realise why it’s wrong … You do,” is the message.

These videos underpin what Anderson has to say. “If bullying is going on, the duty lies with the adult or teacher to perhaps get both parties to sit down and talk to each other, and then help reason through things on a rational level about why engaging in hurtful behaviour is wrong,” he adds. But isn’t being bullied part and parcel of growing up?

Anderson would like to think it doesn’t have to be, and that’s why, he says, setting the tone in the playground first involves being a good role model at home. “Adults have to make sure they show respect to everyone, regardless of stature or status. This means respecting your maids, your employees, your gardener, everyone, because your children learn from you. “Respect is something you ‘catch.’ ”