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Children taking over their own space in the house : consumption and negotiation of meanings

In : Renonciat Annie (ed.), Proceedings from the international conference The child’s room as a cultural microcosm. Space, Pedagogy and Consumption  at the National museum of Education–CNDP/CANOPÉ, Rouen, 7-10 apr. 2013
Cristiane Simão Michelan et Ligia Stella Baptista Correia


The objective of this contribution is to analyze the ways in which children between the ages of six and ten interact with different forms of cultural goods such as toys, games, television programs and the internet within the domestic space of the home. The research purpose was to provide a forum to hear the children’s voice, and then investigate the uses and appropriations they give to cultural products, while exchanging experiences with their family, peers and the media. The interviews took place in the children’s home, since the reflection focused on the everyday practices and relationships with their families. The interviews in the children’s home facilitate the access to their private world, toys and to observe how they occupy space in home.

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1Discussions referring to the relationship between children and consumption have received special attention from diverse segments of the society. Much has been said about the impact of consumption in the development of children. Frequently in those debates, children are seen as being naïve and prone to the appeals of the market. However, there are other theories that approach children’s attitudes towards the media in a more optimistic way, considering them as knowledgeable in regards to the media. The purpose of this article is to seek a balance between the aforementioned opposite theories, following David Buckingham’s line of thought (2007). The perspective adopted in this article seeks to find a balance between the aforementioned opposite theories, following David Buckingham’s line of thought of (2007). This approach recognizes: i) the need to find a way in which children’s opinion and content are considered in the production of cultural goods intended for them; ii) the importance of educating children so they can have a critical role in front of the media.

2Most of the cultural products made for children – who constitute the children’s culture – are permeated by the messages conveyed by the cultural industry. Television programs, especially cartoons and TV series, go beyond the television program itself and create derived products from the main characters, such as accessories, clothes, toys, and other products. Those characters, which children are so passionate about, also influence their cultural activities and everyday life. Faced with such a significant range of cultural products on the market, it is necessary to understand, not only what they are consuming but also what they are doing with those goods, and the meaning that the children attribute to them. However, before establishing the relationship between children and consumption, it is necessary to deconstruct the concept of consumption in which consumers are being considered as alienated and manipulated by superfluous spending. This deconstruction is necessary, especially when investigating a child, who as a consumer has no source of income himself. Thus, the logic of consumption is embedded in all operating mechanisms of everyday life. Consumption sends social codes in which the goods are used to establish relationships, "as modes to integrate and distinguish ourselves in society" (Canclini 2006, p. 35). By recognizing the fact that children do not have complete autonomy in the process of socialization - ie, their autonomy is relative - it is possible to conclude that their responses and reactions, their play and interpretations of reality are also products of their interactions with adults (Delgado and Muller 2005). Therefore, one cannot speak of children´s cultures without including the adult world surrounding them, especially when these adults are their parents, who play an important role as mediator in the choices made by these children. This mediation takes place either due to the financial dependence between children and their parents or through the family values that are passed on to them. Thus, we consider the family as a social space, a cultural space and a space for mediation (Lopes, Borelli and Resende 2002) of children’s cultural practices. It is understood by mediations « places from which originate the constructions that define and shape the social materiality and expressivity cultural. » (Martín-Barbero 2008, p. 294). This concept is fundamental to understand the « circulation of meanings in the social scene and the different modes of translation, appropriation and consumption of these meanings » (Orofino 2008, p. 121) made by the interviewed children. Furthermore, it allows to identify the time at which the « deviations » of meaning occur.

3Considering this context, this paper aims to investigate the different forms of children´s consumption in regards to cultural goods - including toys, games, television and the internet - and understand what meanings children attribute to the cultural products they consume. Two analytical axis lead the reflection : the first presents the home and family dynamics from the mothers’ perspective. Home is considered as a space filled with relationships, movement and life (Lopes, Borelli & Resende 2002). The second axis refers to the effect of family, friends, school and the children’s own conceptions of the world on the process of mediation, which enables them to develop and negotiate meanings in relation to what they consume.

Fundamental theories

4The theoretical and conceptual lines that supported these analyses correspond to those developed especially by British cultural studies and Latin-American cultural studies, quoted in our bibliography. These studies propose the incorporation of elements of everyday life to the analysis of media and consider social actors embedded in a particular social context. Among the authors supporting these analyses are : David Buckingham (2007), with the studies of children and their media consumption ; Néstor García Canclini (2006), with the consumption approach ; Jesús Martín-Barbero (2008) and Guillermo Gómez Orozco (2005), with the concepts of mediation that support research on the negotiation of meaning, related to what people consume ; Michel de Certeau (1994), with the approach of possible resistance tactics from the consumers towards the dominant force, the media ; Stuart Hall (2003), basing the codes used in the process of decoding messages in the communication process ; Lopes, Borelli and Resende (2002), with methodological guidance to investigate how the family dynamic is used as a form of mediation ; Gilka Girardello (2008) and Isabel Orofino (2008) with the contributions of the modes of reception and the cultural practices of children.


5It can be argued that studies of children in the academic field are mostly based on adults’ perspective. The adults who interact with the children are often parents, researchers and professionals, which give them the practical experiences to address studies related to childhood. Thus, it is important to give room to the children to talk about themselves, though the chances and spaces for this are very few and private (Buckingham, 2007) making it difficult for its content to have a major impact. The purpose of the research which based this article was to provide a forum to hear the children’s voice, and then investigate the uses and appropriations they give to cultural products, while exchanging experiences with their family, peers and the media. However, the way chosen to investigate these exchanges did not require observing the children in different scenarios, but rather capture the internalization of values ​​expressed in their daily family life (Lopes, Borelli & Resende 2002). Thus, the interviews took place in the children’s home, since the reflection focused on the everyday practices and relationships with their families which act as important mediators.

6Seven in-depth interviews were conducted in July 2010, in the city of São Paulo - Brazil, with children between six and ten years of age. The child should study in private schools and their parents should have completed a post-secondary degree. By recognizing the existence of different forms of childhood and various cultural repertoires, the focus of interest of this reflection was limited to children belonging to families with medium-high income and good educational level. Thus, sought to speak to children who had access to goods produced by the cultural industry. Table 1 summarizes the profile of each child :



Fictitious name of child (1)

School year

Favorite Activities

Approximate age of siblings




2° year

Watch TV and play DS

9 e 11




2° year

Play and watch soccer





2° year

Watch Harry Potter and play DS

4 e 11




4° year

Paint (pictures)





4° year

Watch TV and read

6 e 11




5° year

Watch TV, read and surf the internet





5° year

Play and watch TV


Table 1 – Profile of the children interviewed (We adopted random names).

7In addition to the interviews, the researcher observed the participants in their own house and spaces, and sought to live the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of a child, inspired by the following passage :

« In order to be able to study children, it is necessary in a way to become a child. What I mean by this is that it is not enough to just observe a child from the outside […], but it is necessary to penetrate beyond the magic circle that separates us, in their worries, their passions, and enter into the world of play. And it is not given to everyone. » (Bastide 1979, p. 154)

8With this end in mind, the interviewer played with dolls, played soccer, video games and surfed on some internet sites with them, trying to play while forgetting the worries of adulthood. In this paper the children are considered as active subjects, social beings who act and react, which have a peculiar logic and a logic different from the adults, citizens and a producers of culture ; a different view from those who consider children as only consumers of the culture established by adults, passively absorbing the realities of the adult world with which they come into contact. The researcher also conducted interviews with the children’s mothers in order to learn a little about the dynamics of the house, the family and the children. In addition, these interviews also tried to capture the perspective of mothers about the evolution of childhood through generations, covering the main differences and similarities identified between their childhood and that of their children. The importance of capturing the perspective of parents is underscored by Charlot (1986), who considers that personal relationships between parents and children are not purely affective, they are part of a social context in which the family occupies a privileged place, but divides this space with school, the media and the social networks.

The house and the family dynamics

9To better understand the point of view of parents regarding the role that the children interviewed occupy in the family, it is important to contextualize the changes that this institution has suffered. Until the nineteenth century the role assigned to women was to care for the house, do chores and ensure the welfare of the family (Aries 1981). In recent decades the history of the typical Brazilian woman is being written differently. The increase in women’s educational level and their entrance into the labor market contributed to the fact that currently women assume a different role in the society. However, the changing role of women has led to the postponement of personal goals such as marriage and motherhood, hence impacting the fertility rate (Michelan 2011). The conception of marriage has also been changing. In fact, according to the data collected by IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Statistic Geography), between 1995 and 2005, the number of divorces increased by 52.6 %. There is also an increase in the number of rearranged families. The absence of women at home for most of the day and new family arrangements expand the space and bargaining power of children in families. Different forms of rewards such as gifts and permissions are often taken to justify the long absence of parents and the fragility of bonds, thus, widening the scope of the decisions of children. In this way, the authority of parents over their children is giving way and is becoming more of a negotiation between them. « There are signs that the place of the child within the family has become more significant, at least symbolically. » (Buckingham 2007)

10This contextualization is important in the way that it helps understand the transformations which are taking place within the family structure, the new family arrangements, and consequently the family life of children. During the interview with the mothers it was possible to understand how their concepts of the « what it means to be a child, and childhood itself » direct the lives of these families by « influencing decisions that encompass spatiality family » (Lopes, Borelli & Resende 2002, p. 141) such as the choice of home, whether it be house or apartment […], and even the routine of children” (Michelan 2011, p. 62). In general, the perception of the interviewees was quite similar. For them, childhood is the time without adult responsibilities. It is also the time during which children can dream and play without worrying about the problems of life, such as work and expenses. The only responsibility that is attributed to children is to study. Regarding changes between their childhood and that of their children, two differences stand out : time and space. In regards to time, the mothers recognize that children today have more responsibility in life. In addition to school, their children also participate in many extra-curricular activities, leaving little free time for play. In respect to the space, the mothers pointed out that when they were children, they had a wider horizon with freedom to play in the street, and with this the possibility to experiment with a variety of roles, and build relations. However, due to the increase in violence, the urbanization of the city and the mother’s professional life, their children can rarely leave the house alone. These were the factors that, according to the mothers, contribute to the current childhood home confinement or to having the children’s day filled up by extra activities, supervised by adults.

11Among the families interviewed, it was found that the decision on the type of home was chosen in some cases even before the children were born, or as a result of an increase in the number of children. In the making of the decision, families considered two factors which are directly related to children : internal and external space. In relation to external space there were two types of orientations which guided the choice of parents : some opted to live in house so that their children would be able to have more space to play and be able to have different types of pets ; others chose to live in apartments in condominium blocks with social play areas so that their children could have easy access to an area to explore, meet and play with friends. The observation of domestic spaces as well as the interviews with the children and the mothers in different moments allowed us to understand the household dynamic somewhat, a private territory in which the parents attempt to plan the best in life for their children, and where both sides live in daily negotiation. « It is important to analyze the spatial culture of the family, because through this it is possible to understand, besides the domestic spaces designed for children, the spaces transformed by children for their cultural activities » (Michelan 2011, p. 74).

12The children interviewed have their own rooms, a place in which they keep their belongings but also characterize their private universes. Besides belongings such as clothes, toys, school supplies, among others, the bedroom is the place in the house where the children have a bit more autonomy to express their tastes and preferences. Often posters of bands, artists, idols and pictures of their friends can be found, filling the void of the walls painted with the color of their choice. Superheroes, collections of Barbies, dolls and strollers are also often found. These toys bring some reassurance to parents indicating that their children are still immersed in childhood and that the interests of the typical pre-adolescent have not yet surfaced. However, due to parental demands, in the majority of the children’s bedrooms there is no television. One of the reasons, according to them, is to promote interaction among family members, and to avoid the isolation that would come about if each one had their own television. In this way the family exercises situational mediation (Orozco Gomez 2005) choosing the place and the people with whom television is watched. These impact the choice of program watched, hence the way the messages are received and the level of attention paid to the programs. In addition to the bedroom, in some cases, the children also have an extra room where they keep their toy and play called the playroom. Nevertheless, even though the children have greater autonomy in these places it was possible to observe situations where negotiation was not an option, for example in the organization of spaces and when television was not given as an option. Although these rooms have been designed for children - by parents and by children themselves - often interviewed children occupy other areas of the house such as the living room. In general, this room is made for relaxation filled with television, multimedia, books, magazines and decorative objects. Even though, the living room is not an environment designed for children to play, the mothers who were interviewed allow it in order to minimize the feeling of home confinement.

13During the interviews with the mothers and later on with the children it was possible to notice that although the relationship between them is open to dialogue there is a limited space for children’s autonomy in relation to their daily activities. In some situations, parents exert greater authority and, in others, children have greater autonomy. This dynamic can be demonstrated in relation to the rooms of the house described above and so, more succinctly, the analyses related : family values, media content, and consumption.

14Family values begin to be transmitted from the first moments of life. According to Orozco Gomez (2005, p. 35), « the worldview of the family is made up of a combination of traditions, values, information and attitudes which function on all members of the family to maintain the cohesion of the group and guarantee its reproduction ». In relation to family values, the researcher was able to observe some concern from the parent in trying to prolong their children’s childhood. As a result, attitudes deemed not suitable for the child’s age were prohibited, such as : use of high heels and make up. This action constitutes a type of institutional mediation, having a family as an orientation reference (Orozco Gómez 2005). The children however, had more autonomy in their choice of extracurricular activities, which generally involve sports, music or painting.

15The relationship between the media and its content is permeated by different levels of negotiation. As has already been mentioned, the location of the television is in the living room, and in this case there is no space for the child’s argumentation. This, in a way, encourages negotiation between the members of the house on what they will watch, as they all have to share the same television set, they must make concessions. There are rules for what is to be watched : when children watch alone, they are allowed to watch only the channels trusted by the parents which show children’s programs. However it is difficult to be sure that children actually keep this rule. As one of the interviewed mother said « only paid channels can be watched, the others are not allowed ; once in a while they try to watch open channels but we don’t let them » (Michelan 2011, p. 65). In some homes, when the parents are watching television, the children are allowed to watch with them, even though if it is not a children’s program.

16In relation to the consumption of goods, children learn from the parents how to use money for purchases. By evaluating the families interviewed it was possible to identify two ways in which children demonstrate having higher autonomy in the process : i) with children’s belongs, mainly related to education and culture such as books, magazines, and sticker albums ; and ii) that they are able to buy with the allowances that they receive periodically. More expensive items have to be negotiated upon with parents.

17It seems as though there is unanimity among parents on the following point of view : due to the fact that, for a variety reasons, children spend part of their time confined to the home, there is agreement that they are allowed to play in different rooms of the home, in the way that they enjoy most. The children, for their part, use this opportunity to have greater bargaining power and are thus better able to have their yearnings attended to. However from the standpoint of the mothers, it was possible to identify that the family dynamic is fundamental in mediating how the child relates to cultural goods.

18In the next item it will be approached the child’s perspective on the way they appropriate different rooms of the home as well as the different meanings they attribute to cultural goods that they use in the household.

Children’s modes of consumption of cultural items

19Despite the fact that these children did not spend a lot of time at home, during the interviews it was possible to observe that different kinds of toys and children’s objects can be found not only in their bedrooms but also spread throughout the house, especially in the TV room. It was also possible to observe how the children, in their daily life, transform and reformulate the spaces. While playing a game with the interviewer, Teo (aged 7) reproduced the entire structure of the game of football and transformed the room into a real football stadium, called « Stadium Park Cameras ». The furniture and sofa were transformed into the fans of the home team, the doors leading into the room and the door leading onto the balcony became, respectively, the goal cage of the home team and opponents ; the home theater system became the away fans ; the security cameras of the room were turned into television cameras from Globo (Michelan 2011, p. 105). To understand how Teo uses both prescribed notions and his own creations to make up his games, Jobim and Souza state that :

« In their games, although children reproduce a lot of what they experience in their daily lives not all of it is mere reproduction. Children do not limit themselves to only remembering and reliving past experiences when they play, but they re-elaborate, re-combine and rebuild interpretations and representations of the real according to their likes, needs, desires and passions. » (Jobim e Souza 2006, p. 148)

20Although Teo played a game that is propagated by the media, it was possible to observe the aspects of his own creation : when he transformed the tree into a trophy and invented the players’ name. To select his team, Teo invented new names for all players, without using any of the famous soccer players’ names. It is possible to better understand the children’s cultural productions that present elements of the media using the concepts developed by Hall (2003) on the process of coding and decoding messages. This situation, when analyzed from the perspective of Hall (2003), can be considered as a form of decoding in « negotiation » because, while Teo plays around the football stadium just like it is seen on TV, he also created new elements like the players and the stadium’s name. From the point of view of FIFA and the media, it would be unthinkable that a 7 years old child would not include in his team, any of the current superstars of soccer, considering that the interviews occurred during the 2010 World Cup and Teo had just completed the album figurines from the Cup. Ultimately there is an implication of what Teo consumes and the way he consumes it, demonstrating that he is not only one who reproduces, but also creates (Martín-Barbero 2008).

21For Girardello (2008), children exercise their imagination while they watch television and later recreate these images inserting them in their playtime, elaborating by their own perspective. But this appropriation is not only made up of content from television, but also things they see in other forms of media such as the internet, magazines, comics and video games. For Benjamin (2005, p. 70), « in elaborating stories, children are set designers that do not allow themselves to be censored by logic ».

22Coming from Benjamin’s conception, it can be said that Aline (aged 10) transformed into a set designer and applied in her play with a doll something that she learnt from a youtube video (Michelan 2011, p. 100) :

ALINE. « I try to make them walk but they just stay like this (makes a robotic movement) […]. Once a put a really thin piece of invisible thread and she walked like this (she pulls back some of her Barbie’s hairs so that she can stand “on her own”), but now I am using her hair.

INTERVIEWER. – Why did you make her like this (showing the way in which Barbie walks) and not like this (makes her walk in a ‘bouncy’ way) as you said ?

ALINE. – Because in the video on youtube they did it this way, but they used a neon threat (meaning to say nylon thread), that can’t be seen, and they do it like this (she makes a movement holding Barbie’s hair).

INTERVIEWER. – That way it is just like in a theatre right ?

ALINE. – Yeah, it is just like the dolls had a lives of their own. »

23According to Brougère (2010), children ground themselves in their immediate realities in order to create an alternative universe, which he called a « second-degree » one and in which make-believe reigns supreme. Through the Aline’s narrative and her « arts of practice » (Certeau 1994) – she not only spoke with but also played with the interviewer –, it was possible to seize upon the appropriations made by her. In agreement with Hall (2003, p. 517), about the different types of position in which decoding occurs, in the transcription below, Aline decodes Barbie’s communication through a code of opposition. From the point of view of the cultural industry, it would be unthinkable for Barbie’s manufacturers conceiving she takes a bus or subway, since there is an entire proposal of a glamorous life for the doll, including a luxury convertible pink car. From Aline’s appropriation, Barbie is an ordinary person who takes the bus or the metro like everybody else :

ALINE. « They (the Barbies) go to work. I have a doll that goes to university.

INTERVIEWER. – Oh yeah ? What does she study ?

ALINE. – I think, that she… I don’t know what she studies, I think she studies arts.

INTERVIEWER. – Oh yeah ?

ALINE.– Yeah, she goes to the university and gets home only at night. Sometimes her Mom asks her to buy something on the street, because she goes by bus.

INTERVIEWER. – She goes by bus ?

ALINE. – Sometimes by metro. »

24The production of Eric (aged 9), described below, who acquired skills from a computer game (Battlefield Bad Company 2) and used them to his advantage in a game of tag with his friends from school can be qualified as consumption (Certeau 1994).

25The ways of using the computer game, in this case, represent the art of using imposed product by cultural industry. There is an everyday creativity establishing the ways in which Eric reappropriated and transformed that product to adapt it to his own interest. Eric clearly subverted the use of the computer game and transposed what he learned there to help him in a real-life game :

INTERVIEWER. « What do you like better when playing tag : to be the tagger or to try to avoid being tagged ?

ERIC. – To run away ! It’s because I’m good at it, I play war games on the computer.

INTERVIEWER. – So do you think the computer game helps you there at school ?

ERIC. – Yes, it helps me, because in the computer game I’m really agile […]. It gives me skills and I learn to hide because the game had a phase which was really similar to a phase at school. There was a tree trunk that looked like a little horse, there was also something similar to a cave at school, it was dark, they hid themselves there, I hid there. »

26Playing in virtual space allows Aline and Lais (aged 7) (mainly when they play Club Penguin on the computer) having contact with other children without leaving home. Due to the fact the children interviewed cannot frequent public spaces because of the violence and the dangers that each family sees beyond the door of the home or outside the gates of the condominium block, now they can visit an exterior space without leaving their domestic spheres. Virtual communities create new forms of relationship and mobility softening the feeling of confinement of children at home. For Aline, the website Habbo is another way to play with dolls and friends at any moment in the day. She chooses clothes, accessories, and hairstyles for her avatar. The Habbo Hotel or simply Habbo, is a virtual community in the form of a hotel. Hotel rooms can be infinitely customized by users with mobis (virtual furniture), floor textures and wallpaper can be bought with Habbo coins. While she waits her turn to enter the game, Aline chooses a new appearance for her avatar, and when in the game she interacts with other children without having any physical proximity. With the internet, Aline has daily virtual meetings with her friends.

27In the interview with Lais, she opened her portable videogame player (DS Nintendo) with the Club Penguin game in order to teach the interviewer to play. Club Penguin is an electronic game for multiple players, made for children and pre-teens. Making use of the colorful penguins, the players play and participate in activities in a virtual world covered of snow. To complete her secret mission, Lais enters in igloos, hides in snow, shoots snowballs with cannons, to sum up, journeys to a distant world, very far from her bedroom. Surfing through these spaces, seemingly without control and disciple, seems like taking up a position in opposition to the traditional one exercised by the family and the school. However, these new territories are not completely without controls. During the interviews it was observed that there was in fact a level of control. Cut-off hours, as well as a maximum number of hours permitted online are established, and a selection of permitted websites is made as well. All of this was done by way of dialogue between children and parents because they did not have software which blocked websites with certain types of contents. An example of this is Aline’s mother, after hearing her daughter speaking about Habbo, found the name strange and decided to access the site to see what it was all about.

28The mode in which children transpose the immediate real and reconstruct it creatively through the imaginary, importing fantastical situations and characters to their daily lives is part the child’s construction of their worldview and the way they attribute meaning to things (Sarmento 2004). They transform themselves, transform materials, people and the world many times over and over again.

Final Considerations

29Far from presenting a conclusion about the relation between children and cultural consumption, this article’s objective is to contribute to the stream of thinkers who see the child as an active subject, capable of reproducing and creating culture and who possess different modes to interpret the world mediated by different agents. As it was demonstrated throughout the article, the family, other than being responsible for transmitting family values is also an important mediator in the child’s relation with cultural goods. It can also be verified that the children interviewed, in their cultural practice of playing, occupy not only their rooms but also other places, mainly the television room. In their daily life they transform and recreate domestic spaces. Through the narratives of the children and their ways of using the cultural goods, it was possible to capture the appropriations that they make with the products that they consume in their homes as well as the meanings that they attribute to them. Examples of this which stood out were : Teo, who in his game of football reproduced the elements transmitted by the media while at the same time mixing this with aspects of his own creation ; Aline, in her play with the doll, brought Barbie into a reality closer to her life and different from what the makers/manufacters foresaw ; Eric, whose practice of giving new uses to the videogame transgresses the dominant order.

30Although the cultural industry, with its contents and means of strong appeal and power of seduction, suggests lifestyle, the children interviewed, when making choices do so mediated by the family, friends, school and by their own conceptions of the world. Even children with full access to purchase cultural goods, they do not only reproduce in their social practices what is transmitted by the cultural industry, but also create and re-elaborate new meanings for the goods that they consume according to a reality that is particular to them.

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Cristiane Simão Michelan et Ligia Stella Baptista Correia, « Children taking over their own space in the house : consumption and negotiation of meanings », Strenæ [En ligne], 7 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/strenae.1221

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Cristiane Simão Michelan

Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo ; National Council of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPQ) - ATOS Group - Communication and consumption : Reception studies and ethics :

Ligia Stella Baptista Correia

Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo ; National Council of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPQ) - ATOS Group - Communication and consumption : Reception studies and ethics :

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