For kids, Christmas means toys. For boys in particular, the hottest toys often have a martial theme — BB guns, army men, light sabers and the like.

But this Christmas season, some parents trudging to the malls for G.I. Joes have had to meet the politically correct platoons now infiltrating the local Toys R’ Us.

Code Pink, a leftist women’s outfit that’s a fixture at antiwar rallies, is taking a break from protesting real conflict in Iraq to campaign against so-called “war toys.” As the Pink website warns: “Every holiday season manufactures prey on our children with pro-war propaganda disguised as innocent toys. Don’t let your child be a victim of G.I. Joe!”

I feel compelled to note that the gracefully aging ladies of Code Pink obviously never have watched an actual G.I. Joe cartoon since the Real American Hero’s enemies are famous for rolling, flying, or parachuting their way out of danger. The Teletubbies have a better kill rate than Joe and his comrades.

Nevertheless, Code Pink is calling for parents to boycott purveyors of pretend weaponry. Fair enough, I suppose. If American parents really think that a cowboy hat and plastic six shooter will turn their little darling into a senseless killer, then by all means: Send a message by buying “The Rainforest Playset” or “Sensitivity: The Boardgame” instead. Voting with your dollars– it’s the free market at work. Code Pinkers horrified by a foam ninja throwing stars or a water gun can avoid these things and argue that others should too.

Yet Code Pink goes way beyond the venerable boycott. While the group urges activists to don pink camouflage and distribute sidewalk propaganda on the evils of war toys, it also instructs would-be peace warriors to pursue their campaign inside stores.

One suggested tactic is the “buy and return.” The idea is for activists themselves to purchase war toys and then head straight to customer service. There they return the offending products while engaging in a verbal strike– imploring managers to take “violent” toys off the shelves and pestering fellow customers about war toys’ dangers. (Certainly, there’s no better way to win converts than to gum up the return and exchange lines during the holiday rush.) Code Pink suggests pre-arranging local media to cover the impending ruckus.

At least Code Pink’s “buy and return” silliness is probably legal. Operation “Stick It To ‘Em,” however, encourages activists to deface private property by placing surgeon general-style warning labels on offending toys. The Code Pink website includes helpful samples that, they explain, are easily printed on sticky mailing labels. One sums up the heart of the campaign: “Violent Toys=Violent Boys.”

That equation just doesn’t add up. Clearly, not all toys are virtuous or appropriate for children. Video games like Grand Theft Audio, in which players can decapitate police officers (or alternatively, set them on fire or brutalize them with a chainsaw), are unhealthy for children– and probably for everyone else. Some toys have few redeeming values.

Yet there’s a big difference between GTA: Vice City and G.I. Joe, plastic army men, or Super Soakers. As Code Pink says, wars- real wars- aren’t games. But the reverse also is true: Games aren’t wars. Neither research nor common sense supports quashing the natural tendency of little boys to play soldier, cowboy, or cop. And like it or not, violence is a reality in the world and soldiers and policemen aren’t villains to most Americans. These professions embody the discipline, responsibility, and self-sacrifice that most parents want to nurture in their children. What better way for kids to express admiration and explore these virtues than through games and make believe?

Sometimes games turn ugly. Rough-and-tumble play can lead to bruised egos as well as bruised knees and elbows. Parents should set limits and exercise supervision to ensure that games and play don’t go too far. Such parental involvement- teaching limits and under what circumstances aggressive behavior is appropriate- will do far more to shape boys into honorable young men than costumed whining at toy stores.

Carrie Lukas is the director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.