The informant is a Chinese American. We were discussing interesting superstitions in Chinese or American cultures when she brought out this item.
You’re not supposed to step on cracks in the floor. If you step on it, you’re going to break your mother’s back. And I think kids kinda play for fun with it when they’re little. There are very few kids who actually believe it. Obviously, because kids step on it all the time, and no one’s mother dies of that. It’s mostly just for fun.
Interviewer: And how do they play with it? Like in what situations?
Informant: Someone would say, don’t step on the cracks or you would break your mother’s back. And all the kids have to avoid stepping on cracks. They just have to all walk around like to avoid cracks,
Interviewer: And they just do it for fun?
Informant: Yeah, they just do it for fun.
Interviewer: Like, they laugh and walk around it?
Informant: Kind of. It’s more like if someone does accidentally step on a crack, they would point it out and like, ‘haha, you stepped on a crack; you broke your mother’s back!’ kind of thing. It’s obviously rude and stupid.
First, the saying itself includes a rhyming between “back” and “crack”. This is probably how the crack in the road is connected with the mother’s back.
Second, the saying involves homeopathic magic. Stepping on a crack is likened to actually stepping on mother’s back.
Third, the kids make fun of the saying, because they don’t believe in it. There is a counter-hegemonic feeling involved. The kids are supposed to follow the saying even they don’t believe it, so they follow the saying in an exaggerated way: for example, they intentionally avoid all the crack, and make fun of the kid who accidentally steps on a crack instead of feeling worried for the kid’s mom.
My informant doesn’t believe in the saying. She thinks the saying is stupid. She also cannot understand the doings of the kids.
My informant grew up in Hacienda Heights where he went to high school, and received his bachelor’s degree from USC. He is a game designer and is currently working for a social mobile gaming company based in Westwood.
“‘Stepping on your mother’s back,’ we heard that a lot in the playground. Um.”
Collector: “I haven’t heard that one; what is it?”
“Stepping on a–uh, you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. So you don’t wanna do that.”
Collector: “So like just…”
“Avoid the cracks in the ground.”
This sounds like a classic superstition spread on the playground. According to my research, the origins of this rhyme/proverb had a different variation in the second half. Instead of “break your mother’s back,” it’s rumored that the original rhyme was “your mother will turn black,” which indicated that stepping on a crack would result in your having a black child (which would taint your whole family line with “black blood”). My informant did not know anything about these origins or even why stepping on a crack would break his mother’s back. In my opinion, there is no real fear being played upon here, but it’s more of a children’s game, where the desire to not want to break one’s mother’s back leads to the child hopping around on the sidewalk, enthusiastically trying to avoid stepping on any crack in the pavement.
My informant first heard the American expression when she was in elementary school. The saying is pretty popular and is easily recognized by most Americans. She says that she commonly used the expression on the playground at school or while playing with friends. Also, it is not something that you merely say, but “is a rhyme that you kind of sing.” She remembers saying the phrase while hopping over cracks.
When she was younger, my informant explained that it was not something that she necessarily believed. She had stepped on plenty of cracks and nothing bad ever happened to her mom. However, she did say that it was considered bad luck. However, my informant was and is not very superstitious. So although she knew the saying, she personally did not think it was bad luck, “especially since there were so many cracks on the ground at [her] school!” My informant, now an elementary school teacher, also said that she has overheard her students using the expression as well. The American proverb seems to still exist and remains a traditional “playground” proverb.
The famous adage has been used and continually reinforced in film. The 1988 children’s movie The Land Before Time shows a variation of the expression with the character “Ducky” saying: “Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll fall and break your back.” Nevertheless, the scene shows how it is used in child’s play. The characters Ducky, Cera and Littlefoot hop over cracks as they rhythmically say the line. The movie, made almost twenty-five years ago, is still popular among kids today, especially for those who become interested in dinosaurs. The Land Before Time’s popularity helps perpetuate the continuation of the well-known American adage.
The Land Before Time. Dir. Don Bluth. Perf. Pat Hingle, Gabriel Damon and Judith Barsi. Universal, 1988.
This legend is about a park in North Long Beach called DeForest Park. As kids we always just referred to it as DeForest which made many of the younger kids believe it was our North Long Beach version of a forest. The park is intended to be a nature park and also runs along the length of the Los Angeles River bank. It is shrouded in mystery because of its vastness and notoriously sketchy population.
My brother told this legend about DeForest from when we were in middle school:
“So they say that in some parts of De Forest there was a crack den. These people made this special strain of crack there that was the most addictive.
The reason it was so addictive is cause they used homeless people. They would take the homeless people from like off the train tracks and kill them in De Forest. Then they would cut up the poor old hobos and cook them up. They would boil them in with the crack.
The den was located right where the river is …the little river bed that’s in De Forest it was right by there.
That’s where they manufactured it and like broke it down n shit.
They were selling it to like middle schools so they could all grow up addicted. To whoever had money.”
Around the time this legend became popular North Long Beach had a notoriously bad reputation. It was known for drug houses and dens and high incidence of violence. DeForest was truly a spot where people knew they could find drugs that would otherwise be off the mainstream drug market of North Long Beach. DeForest was also known as the stomping grounds for middle schoolers and high schoolers trying drugs for the first time.
Due to the truly dangerous nature of DeForest this narrative acts as a practical warning for residents and especially non-residents to stay out of the “park”. It could also warn non-residents in general from venturing to North Long Beach. It was implied around this time that people who ventured into this area did so for drugs and there was a strong culture of fear surrounding drug use.
For those who were actually from North Long Beach, DeForest was an often sad reality. This story was not frightening to them because drug use in the area existed, but because it was suggested that the practice was so fatal for everyone in the community. Crack’s production required unsuspecting lives and it’s consumption was somehow cannibalistic and gruesome. This says a lot about the anxieties of North Long Beach residents at the time – not only preoccupied with the reality of drugs in the community but to the costs imposed on the community by those who profited the most.
My informant first heard this superstition during recess when she was in the first grade. She happened to walk on the seams in a sidewalk and the girls she was playing with began to chant the superstition. My informant had never heard the superstition before and, in the moment, she thought she had actually hurt her mother. She started sobbing, because she knew how devastation a broken back could be. Her friends found her crying and they came to comfort her until she stopped crying. They explained that the connection between cracks and backs was just a superstition.
The whole experience was so traumatic for my informant that she can remember the day nearly perfectly and still thinks about it frequently. She believes that the superstition was made by a mother who wanted their child to watch their step. My informant said her daughter is always stepping in gum or dog droppings, and she would love for her daughter to be more cautious of her step. So, instead of getting her to be careful for the sake of her shoes, it’d be a lot easier to get her to be careful for the sake of her mother. She also said that this superstition is mainly used by kids because only kids would believe in a connection between cracks in the sidewalk and their mother’s wellbeing. My informant said that later in her childhood, even though she didn’t believe the superstition, she used to step on the cracks depending on her feelings about her mother at the time. This gave her a way to vent some of her anger without actually causing harm to her mom.
I believe the superstition was started by a bored child who had to walk home from school everyday. Personally, I only had to walk to my mother’s car, and even with this short distance, I know I stared at the sidewalk much longer than I ever should have. After staring at the concrete for so long, it’s likely that such a rhyming superstition would be thought of. Also, a popular variant suggests that stepping on a crack is bad luck in general, which puts both you and your mother at risk. I believe the meaning behind the superstition is to watch your step, because if you don’t, you’re likely to trip or trod on something gross.