A Rant Against Harry Chapin‘s “Cat’s in the Cradle”

I am always haunted by three songs. They are my personal ghosts. They are with me wherever I go, just ready to jump back in front of me with a scream of “Boo! Got ya! Now sing along!” And I have no choice. I sing every damn time.

The first is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something. Let’s get this out of the way first, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an awful movie. It’s not just an awful movie, it’s also a racist film. There is no good reason for the lyricist and the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend to have fond memories of that film. I would even argue that an enjoyment or love of the film a good ground for dumping… on both sides.

But gosh darn it, that chorus in the song is so catchy!

I hope wherever the lead singer of Deep Blue Something is, he is also singing that song every day… seems only fair for what he has put me through since its release.

The second song is “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by Us3. This song from the ’90s was created out of an attempt to combine Blue Note jazz records with rap. For some strange reason, this is the only rap song I can rap along with all the way through. Which means at some point during my day you might hear me quietly bragging about my basketball skills and my ability to rap. (Both things that aren’t true.)

The third song though hits me more psychologically. It cuts me to my core, leaving me feeling guilty about the smallest things, because…

I will not ever, ever, EVER be like the dad in Harry Chapin‘s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

For those lucky enough not to know this folk pop number, it is a cautionary tale about parenting and the lessons we teach our kids without meaning to. The narrator is a father who never seems to have time for his son. He wasn’t there when his son learned to walk or speak. He even casually dismisses his son’s birth, saying that he was merely born “in the usual way.” I’m sure his wife when she was screaming in the hospital didn’t think it was “usual.” 

Here is an example of what I mean.

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 “Not today,
I got a lot to do”…

God, what an asshole!

Where do we even begin? He is 10 and his dad just gets him a ball? He doesn’t know how to throw? (Which means no game of catch ever.) AND his dad, can’t give his son thirty minutes (minimum) of throwing a new ball back and forth? And really, a ball was at the top of his son’s birthday wish list? Had he even spent a minute talking to his poor abandoned kid? Who is this Dr. Evil? No, wait, Dr. Evil tried to connect to his son! I would be surprised if this dad even knew his son’s name. He doesn’t reference it in the song. “Hey kid, here’s a ball. Go throw it by yourself.”

The chorus of the song is not better either. Sometimes I like to imagine all these people with long hair in the ’70s  singing along to this like it is some kind of anthem:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then.
You know we’ll have a good time then

Pull out the lighters people! Woohoo! Bad parents everywhere, singalong!

For the last 10 years I have been a parent, and one of my focuses in this role has been to create moments. I love to do this honestly, and I might even be considered good at it. No, correct that- I am a legend at this.

I keep an eye out for concerts and events coming to the area, plan complicated vacations, and attend and videotape everything I can that they take part in. Do you want to see my DVD collection of home movies? They are there in a special case in my house. I have everything in there. I even have a video of a one-year-old throwing up on me. Capture every moment!

(By the way, my kids think it is hilarious every time they see that video. I think it might be their favorite.)

But as much as I enjoy these bonding moments and adventures with the family, I know in my heart I am also fighting against that damn song, my parenting musical ghost ready to shout “Boo.”

I am not going to look back at my days as a parent and imagine my kids being disappointed for not spending enough time with me. That might be something that’s missed by a lot of parents, but most of the time, it’s not really about the event or the presents. They want to spend time with us! Yes, Disneyland is awesome but it is more awesome when you’re sitting in the ride next to them. It’s there in the song too, the kid is more interested in playing catch and learning to throw, not the lame ball.

Some would probably say I should thank Harry Chapin for this song. He is making sure I am there every day, fully taking part. Sure, why not? But he is accompanying it through guilt! Argh!

And I probably would have been a good dad without that feeling and stress! I like doing 95% of the things my kids like doing. I am a total child at heart. They might even be outgrowing me soon. This whole interaction would have still been my parenting experience, but thanks to this twisted song I am always wondering if it is enough.

Is it? IS IT?

Should I just give one more hug? (Well, yes, of course, but you get what I mean.)

The end of the song is one of the strangest things about it and that is saying a lot. There is a debate there and probably really no great answer awaiting us.

The son is grown now and has his own family. (I wonder if the narrator has bothered to learn their names?) The old dad, of course, finally has time and wants to see if he can spend some of it with his son. I want to give you this last bit of the song before I start to deconstruct it. Here you go:

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

“The boy was just like me?” What!?!

The dad is completely wrong! His son is absolutely nothing like him!

If anything, his son has learned how NOT to be like his dad. I would guess that the two big lessons the son learned over the course of his life is that (1) he didn’t want to be a father like his dad and (2) he didn’t want to spend time with his disconnected dad. And when it comes to that last point I couldn’t agree more.

The son is a father who is taking care of his kids (“the kids have the flu”). Good for him! He is not phoning it in (the flu can be gross). But somehow the arrogant older dad, thinks this means his son is like him. How? This is a guy who is being a dad, not a douche. I bet that house is full of toys that are being used, not random balls for a ten-year old. I also bet the son was there for his children’s first words and steps, even if the births were in the “usual way.”

Now, based on that ending, do I believe Harry Chapin didn’t understand his own song? It is possible. At least some of the listeners might be wrong.

Is this one of those unreliable narrator things? That might be too slick a possibility for a song like this.

Harry Chapin was a great guy and fought for many good causes and charities in his life. There is no denying that. There is a strong chance he was hoping to make a positive difference with this song. If this song, made someone out there a better dad, that is great. I support that! More people should be arguing for men to be better dads, but for me, I just want this song out of my head.

I want the cat out of the cradle.

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