Our country remains at war, the world remains unstable and children continue to hear about violence in our own communities. Add these realities to cyber-bullying issues and the constant talk of terrorism, and you find that news coverage and casual conversations about current events often include allusions to violence.

When buying gifts for children this holiday season, once again its worth noting that many computer games and toys are shockingly violent. What difference does it make if children play with violent games? As weve said in the past, it can make a big difference over time.

We know that children learn through play and they absorb values by mirroring what they see and hear. When we give a child a violent game, computer game, or toy, were saying its OK to play in that way and that those activities are acceptable. There is a subtle message being sent and one that in this day and age is reinforced at every turn that violence is out there, and its OK maybe even good to fantasize about it.

Its really not OK for children to fantasize about violence, especially at the personal level. We should make that message clear to young people as early as we can.

The problem is that we live in a media-saturated world, and the media messages are filled with violence. This is a big departure from when most of us were children. Many of us played with violent toys, but it was easier to separate that play from reality because the movies we watched, the books and newspapers we read, were gentler and more innocent than the current fare. Play and fantasy were clearly separated from reality.

Thats not true today. Cartoons, reality shows and computer games seem to blend with informational shows or news. We have become numbed to tragedy and suffering. In many ways, it has even been glorified.

We all know the pressures our own children exert on us when theres a game or toy they really want. Especially around holiday time, we want to give children gifts that will make them happy.

But when movies, computer games, television programs, DVDs and even the morning newspaper and evening news are filled with messages of violence, it becomes more difficult to separate the fantasy messages from those of the real world. Our children are becoming numb to human suffering, simply because news of it surrounds them at every turn.

As parents and relatives, we send messages to our children through everything we do, and whether we mean to or not through the games and toys we give. If we really hope to achieve a safer, more civil world, we must act on those values and reinforce them whenever we can. Actions always speak louder than words, and giving violent toys and games can counteract what we say to our children about kindness and compassion. There are plenty of great games and toys available. When it comes to the violent ones, its really best for our children to look for something else.

Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools.