The other day my six year old and four year old were in their room. Since the laws of sibling physics dictatet hat no two siblings can be around each other for more than five minutes before some squabble erupts, it wasn’t long before the older kid marched into my room and announced that her sister was “terrorizing” her. I was mildly amused at that choice of word for about a minute, and then it sunk in: the word terrorize is part of my child’s lexicon, used as casually as this. That’s not how I grew up. My siblings annoyed me, pestered me, made me inclined to use violence as a way of problem-solving, but ‘terrorize’ was never a part of that vocabulary. ‘Terror’ was what barely happened in the pulpy R.L Stine horror books I read, which were largely about ghosts and axe murderers who preyed on silly teenagers.

But for our children, growing up in this age, this city, this country, ‘terror’ is a normal word. As a parent, one of the hardest things I have had to explain to my children was why their school was closed for so long last December, why there was a man with a gun on the roof when they went back, why there was barbed wire on the now-extended walls. They are very young, and as children do, see the world in black and white. So there were bad guys, and bad guys are mean and hurt people. That’s our sanitized, safe version. But children listen, and children look, and children talk to each other, and all of our children know what a terrorist is. Even if it’s a hazy idea, a ‘bad guys vs good guys’ idea, it’s there in their consciousness. And it’s probably worse for Muslim and desi kids growing up abroad, because there they are called terrorists openly, to their face, by horrible people. At least our kids, in homogenous little Pakistan, have the small comfort of being able to see terrorists as the Other, Not-Us.

Language, as I keep writing about, is vital to people not just for communication but as a reflection of the psychological. We use language so carelessly and naturally that we don’t stop to think why we choose a particular language to speak in in a particular situation, why we might read in English but only weep in Urdu, why a joke is funnier in Punjabi. Why we use the words we do. Why does ‘thank you’ roll off the tongue, or even ‘shukriya’, but not ‘meherbani’, that word implying gratitude and a debt? Why does a six year old think it’s perfectly ordinary to describe the effect of an irritating sibling as terrorization?

It’s the reason why we use words like ‘rape’ so casually. Someone take advantage of your signed-in Facebook and change your status to something funny? You got Facebook-raped, or fraped. Professor set an exceptionally hard exam? Your boss blow you up? You got raped. Ha haha. Only it’s not funny in any way, and never ever will be. Rape is a horrific and violent thing, and it happening to someone is a ghastly and traumatic thing. By equating rape with something as stupid and trivial as a practical joke takes the enormity of rape and reduces it to the level of inanity. As if it’s something you can laugh off. It’s no big deal. Only it is.

The way we use language has a huge impact on our minds, and the most alarming part is that we don’t even realize it. I worry for my children, for their friends, for this generation of Pakistanis growing up in playground ringed with barbed wire, going to birthday parties after weaving through checkpoints, watching snippets of the news their parents are watching. Bomb, terrorist, drones. These are the words they are growing up with. I don’t know how to protect them from a world gone mad, but being mindful of words, being alert to intercept and explain, is surely the first step.