The following information was collected from a seven-year-old Caucasian girl from South Haven, MI. The girl will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant”, and I the “Collector”.
Informant: “It’s..umm.. ‘Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”
Collector: “What does it mean?”
Informant: “Um… On the sidewalk. If you step on the lines, your mom’s back is supposed to break.”
Collector: “Have you ever stepped on the line?”
Informant: “Yeah. But she didn’t break her back.”
The Informant informed me of this saying when we were discussing games she and her friends and siblings played on the way to school. This piece was the first game that she thought of. The informant learned the saying and subsequent game from one of her older siblings. She remembered they yelled at her once when they started playing and the Informant got scared that she had actually hurt her mother. But now she knows that it doesn’t actually hurt them right away, it’s just bad luck and could lead to her mother breaking her back.
I believe, like my informant, that this little saying/game is just that: a game. But upon looking closer, I believe more meaning can be derived from the intention behind the game. The notion that the simple act of stepping on a crack on the sidewalk could potentially cause your mother to break her back makes me think mostly of implanting the idea of responsibility. I believe the game/saying brings forward the idea that children have to take responsibility for their actions. Meaning, if you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. The idea behind this is that if you do something that indirectly causes another event, you are responsible for that outcome, whatever it may be.
For another version of this game, please see p. 94 of Eliot Oring’s (1986) edition of Folk Group and Folklore Genres: An Introduction in Jay Mechling’s chapter on “Children’s Folklore” ((Utah State University Press)).
Bronner, Simon J., et al. Folk Groups And Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Edited by Elliott Oring, University Press of Colorado, 1986.