“A child arrived just the other day, came to the world in the usual way,” so says the first few chords of “Cats in the Cradle”, the 1974 Number 1 Hit song by Harry Chapin. Since that time, the song has been performed by such notables as Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce and many more.
The lyrics tell a story about a father who has planes to catch and bills to pay and a son who learns to walk while the father is away earning a living for his family. The son wants his father’s time and attention and longs to be like his dad, but the father’s commitments do not even allow time to play catch with his children.
Throughout the son’s childhood, the well intentioned father tells of a time in the future when they will get together and promises, “You know we’ll have a good time then, son. You know we’ll have a good time then.” That time never comes. The father retires and asks for time with his son. Tragically, the adult son has matured without a close paternal relationship and does not see the need for one at that point in his life.
The son is now a father who has no time for anything except his own job. The folk song concludes with the father’s realization that his never ending pursuit of financial success has not only cost him a relationship with his son, but that his son is following in his footsteps, repeating a vicious cycle of neglect.
It has been said that Chapin’s song has put more fathers ill at ease than any other song in music history. Perhaps the haunting allure of the song is the familiar, yet frightening reality of a lesson learned too late. Agonizingly, parents realize sooner or later, that our children need time and attention much more than they need financial security and in this fast paced world, fathers are not the only parents who have precious little time for their children.