“Cats in the Cradle” and the Indispensable Nature of Fatherhood

Seth Brickley

As a child, I used to listen to oldies in the car while riding around with my father. The station we listened to in the Twin Cities was Kool 108 where the station proclaimed in between songs, “Great times and Great oldies, Kool 108.” My father, a baby boomer, grew up with this genre of music and still enjoyed listening to some of the songs. Most were fairly shallow, but one song came on every once in a while that I could tell had held a much deeper meaning. It was a song by Harry Chapin titled, “Cats in The Cradle.”

The story behind this song is fascinating. Harry Chapin’s wife wrote a poem about fatherhood. What inspired their soon-to-be-born son and the reality that her husband worked long hours. She was concerned that this pattern of work would continue and he would have no time for him. Chapin didn’t pay much attention to the poem at first, but once their son was born it greatly impacted him. This inspired him to put music to the poem, and the hit “Cats in The Cradle” was born. Chapin wrote the song to remind him not to be an absent father, but one actively involved in his son’s life. Chapin tragically died in a car wreck at the young age of thirty-eight when his son was only nine years old.

A Failure of a Father

The lyrics of the song can quickly grab any father’s attention. Chapin tells not a story of a triumphant father but of failure. He writes:

“There were planes to catch and bills to pay. He learned to walk while was away. And he was talking fore I knew it, and as he grew. He’d say, ‘I’m gonna be like you, Dad, you know I’m gonna be like you.”

Then Chapin sings the famous chorus:

“And the Cats in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon. “When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, you know we’ll have a good time then.”

Then he continues to tell the story of the child as he got older:

 “My son turned ten just the other day. He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play. Can you teach me to throw, I said-a, ‘not today, I got a lot to do,’ he said, that’s okay.”

This tragic song tells the story of a father who never delivers on his promises to spend time with his son.

Eventually, the son grows up and the roles are reversed. It is no longer the son who wants to spend time with his father, but it is the father who wants to spend time with his son. It starts when his son is at college. The father asks his son, “When you coming home, son?” The son replies, “I don’t know when. But we’ll get together then, Dad, you know we’ll have a good time then.” Then the father retires and at this stage in life his son has a wife and children. The father calls his son and his son tells him he is again busy, and then Chapin writes the sobering words that the father exclaims, “As I hung up the phone, it occurred to me. He’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”

Grief to His Father

The father described in Chapin’s song failed. It’s a song that teaches not what to do, but what not to do in a father’s role. Truly, it’s a song of warning. This dad is depicted as an absentee who never built a connection with his son because he neglected to spend time with him, his most important responsibility. He put work and lesser priorities over his family and negatively influenced his son to follow the same pattern. Just as the father was not committed to his son, so his son as an adult had no sense of fulfilling his obligation of being involved in his father’s life. A wise son makes his father proud (Proverbs 15:20), but this father didn’t set him up well. He also turned out foolish, as he was raised to be, and brought grief to his father (Proverbs 17:25).

“The Discipline and Instruction of the Lord”

Fathers in Scripture are charged with a great responsibility. The apostle Paul instructed them to “not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). King Solomon calls fathers to, “Train up a child in the way he should; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). The biblical call for a father is to develop a rich relationship with one’s children where Christ is at the center. Children must be taught their need for a Savior (John 3:16) and their need to live under His Lordship (Luke 9:23-24). For a father to teach his children the ways of the Lord he must be present. Many things will demand a father’s attention. Fathers tend to have lots on their plates from work to household tasks, to enjoying hobbies, to spending time with their friends. But one thing that cannot be neglected is a father’s responsibility to spend purposeful time with his children.

Fleeting Time

It has been said that the fastest years of life are those when children are in the home. I remember at my wedding my father said this very thing at the reception. What he told the attendees is that morning he walked by the bedroom I slept in during my upbringing, and the days that I spent in that room were now past. It was a sad moment for him. Not because he wasn’t involved in my life, he very much was, but rather he realized that those precious years when father and son lived under the same roof were now past. The relationship was still there, but the nature of the time spent together was now changing.

Fathers will never have that amount of time with their children again. Fathers, with children still under your roof, take this to heart. The time is ticking and soon your children will very likely be out from under your roof. You don’t want to have regrets. Spend time with your children. Develop rich relationships with them. Teach them the ways of the Lord. As you do this, by God’s grace, when they are old their God-honoring relationship with you will be one of their greatest treasures and will fill your heart with profound joy. As you show them what it means to follow Jesus, they will follow in your steps.

Harry Chapin doesn’t appear to have been a believer, but his song, Cats in The Cradle, through God’s common grace, highlights the biblical call for fathers to prioritize their children amid the demands of life. It has encouraged many to pursue biblical fatherhood whether they realize it or not. It certainly has encouraged me to give attention to my children with the fleeting time that I have.

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