Why “The Cat’s in the Cradle” is a Silly Song

The song “Cat’s in the Cradle” is an emotional song that pulls at the heart strings of fathers and sons. The basic gist is a man has a son, but is too busy with work to spend time with his son. Meanwhile, his son idolizes him, repeatedly saying “I’m gonna be like [my father]”. When the man finally has time to spend with his son, his son is an adult and doesn’t have any time to spend with his dad. What tragedy! Except, here’s the “ironic” end to the song.

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

Ok, the narrator is trying to show a parallel. Basically, he’s using the same 1980s drug message. Anyone remember these? “I learned it watching you!”

But there are two important parts to the message. The son says, “the new job’s a hassle”, which does signify he’s a workaholic like his dad. Except, he immediately follows it up with “and kids have the flu.” His son is indicating he’s deciding to focus on his job AND his children. He’s not being like his dad here; he’s acting the opposite. He’s choosing to focus on his kids instead of his dad.

Now, even the ignoring the kid seems off to me. The first verse has a key phrase in it:

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘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”

The narrator seems to be a workaholic in part to pay the bills, which we’d assume includes his new son. It’s not like he’s neglecting his son for terrible reasons. And, in fact, we only get four major points in his son’s life according to the song:

  1. His son’s birth, which he can’t attend.
  2. His son’s tenth birthday, which he does attend. However, he doesn’t have a lot of time to play with his son.
  3. His son’s college graduation, where his son would rather borrow the car than hang out with his son.
  4. And finally, the last moment is when his son is an adult and has his a family of his own.

In only one of these cases is he gone, and he gives a good reason for it — he has to pay the bills. And his son oddly sees the father enough to want to be like him. And it seems this strategy paid off. His son graduates from college and grows up to have a (we assume) good job and a family of his own.

In general I kind of hate the “busy parent” trope that shows up in a lot of movies and songs. This song is no exception. The real thesis of the song could be – I didn’t have a lot of money when my son was young, so I couldn’t spend as much time with him. I wish I’d spent a little more because he’s busy now. And, while that certainly is a decent message, it’s not the tearjerking “ironic” yarn the narrator has been lamenting. At least, that’s my two cents.