This time of year we often write about the harmful effects that can be caused by allowing children to play with violent video games or toys. In light of the horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., the need to pay attention becomes even more urgent. 

Violent games do not necessarily cause violent behavior, but they set a context and provide tacit approval for violent thoughts and actions. Also, by making such purchases, we are all supporting a culture of violence that is no longer tolerable.

When buying gifts for children this holiday season, then, it’s worth noting that many of today’s computer games and toys are shockingly violent and the messages sent to those who play them can make a cumulative 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, we’re saying it’s OK to play that way, and that those activities are acceptable. There is a subtle message being sent — and one that is reinforced at every turn in the news — that violence is “out there,” and it’s OK to fantasize about it.

It’s absolutely 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.

We live in a media-saturated world, and those media messages are filled with violence. This is a big departure from earlier generations. 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. Sometimes it has even been glorified. We hope that the tragedy in Connecticut begins to change that culture, but we all need to do our part.

We know the pressures our 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, 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 can become 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 start small and early, acting on the values we wish to reinforce. 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 if we simply look for something else. That conclusion is becoming more and more self-evident. Let’s all do our part to start counteracting the culture of violence.

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