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, it’s worth noting that many toys and computer games are more violent than ever. Many people ask: What difference does it make if children play with violent games? We all did it when we were young.

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, we’re saying it’s 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 it’s OK — maybe even good — to fantasize about it.

It’s 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 and the books and newspapers we read were gentler and more innocent than the current fare. Play and fantasy were clearly separated from reality.

That’s 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.

What’s more, the current advertising and promotion of toys and computer games has taken a twist. We now have toys and games that are developed first, and then cartoon programs that are created strictly to market those toys or games, under the guise of programming. The programs serve as models of how to play with those toys, and, more often than not, they are distressingly violent.

We all know the pressures our own children exert on us when there’s 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, video 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, it’s really best for our children to look for something else.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.