The Meaning Behind “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin

The fractured relationship between a father and a son, from birth through adulthood is told verse by verse through Harry Chapin’s 1974 folk tale “Cats in the Cradle.”

Videos by American Songwriter

Topping the charts when it was first released—and Chapin’s sole No. 1 hit— the opening track of his 1974 album Verities & Balderdash, “Cats in the Cradle,” has remained a folk-rock classic, reemerging on television and film for nearly five decades and a recent induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.

Birth Place

Right from the opening lines, Chapin is telling the story of a son’s birth and the father that’s too busy with his career to spend quality time with his baby boy. All of life’s responsibilities—working, paying bills—get in the way of quality time with his son.

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 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”

10 Years Later

The lyrics move on to when the son has turned 10 and the situation has remained unchanged. The father is still too busy with work and oblivious to his son’s needs.

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
And he, he walked away, but his smile never dimmed
It said, I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him

College Years

By the third verse, the narrator’s son has come home from college and is now too busy to spend time with his father.

Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?
He shook his head, and they said with a smile
What I’d really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them pl

I’m gonna be like you, dad / You know I’m gonna be like you

In the final verse, the son has moved away and is now too busy with his own family and job to visit his father, and the recurring verse—I’m gonna be like you, dad / You know I’m gonna be like you—has now come true.

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 the 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

Sandra Chapin’s Poem

The song was initially inspired by a poem written by Harry Chapin’s wife Sandra, in reference to a country song she heard, and a real-life relationship between a father and a son that was disconnected, which added more meaning to the song.

“‘Cat’s In The Cradle’ was a combination of a couple of things,” said Sandra Chapin. “Whenever I was on a long drive I would listen to country music because words would keep me awake more than just music. And I heard a song—I can remember the story, but I don’t remember who sang it or what the title was, but an old couple was sitting at their breakfast table and looking out the window, and they saw the rusted swing and the sandbox, and they were reminiscing about the good old days when all the children were around and then the grandchildren, and how it passed, and now it’s all gone.”

The other part of Sandra’s poem was pulled from the poor relationship between her ex-husband and his own father, which remained detached due to their individual work and responsibilities.

Harry’s Son Josh

Sandra and Harry were married in 1968 and had two children together, Jennifer and Joshua. When Josh was born, Harry decided to turn his wife’s poem into a song.

“We both looked at each other’s stuff,” shared Sandra. “And then one time he came home and he said, ‘What have you been doing?’ I showed him ‘Cat’s In The Cradle,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ …Sometimes he’d pick up something and put music to it, and that [the poem] didn’t really grab him at all. And then after Josh was born, it did. He picked it up and he wrote music to it.”

Harry Chapin would often introduce “Cats in the Cradle” as a song his wife wrote since he wasn’t home when their son Joshua was born. “I was always kind of amused by that because of the fact that we learn life’s lessons too late,” said Sandra. “We don’t learn lessons before the fact. We don’t have a child born and then have all this wisdom. So I always thought it was interesting the way he told the story.”

Ugly Kid Joe

Though “Cats in the Cradle” has been covered by numerous artists, including Yusuf Cat Steven’s 1977 rendition “Cat’s Cradle,” it was Ugly Kid Joe’s 1992 cover that has remained one of the most memorable. Released on the band’s debut America’s Least Wanted, “Cats in the Cradle” (title without the apostrophe) topped the charts internationally and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart and at No. 6 on the Hot 100 in the U.S.

The Legacy of “Cats in the Cradle”

Today, Sandra Chapin, 88, honors her late husband, who died in 1981 in a car accident at the age of 38, through the Harry Chapin Foundation, which supports causes he was passionate about during his life, from the environment and conservation, arts and education, and more, while spending quality time with her many grandchildren.

“The eldest of the six has just gone into sixth grade, which means not only does she live in a community where the kids grow up fast, but now she’s in a middle school where everybody thinks they’re teenagers and ought to be in high school,” shared Sandra. “So you know, you have to grab those years.”

Chapin added, “It used to be when I would drive up to the house, she would jump out and run and greet me, and say, ‘Grandma, what’s the project for today?’ Because I would always bring some arts and crafts. We’d make Thanksgiving place cards or Christmas tree ornaments. But all through the year, I was always doing projects with them. So now she’s answering her e-mail, she’s on her cell phone and doing dates, walking around town with her friends, being a grownup, and doing all the after-school activities. You have to grab that chance when you have it.”

Photo of Harry Chapin by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Blue Collar Anthems to Listen to in Honor of Labor Day