What Does the Cat’s in the Cradle Mean?

Cat’s in the Cradle Meaning

Definition: A reference to the song “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

Origin of Cat’s in the Cradle

This expression is the title of a popular song by Harry Chapin, from the year 1974.

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.”

And the cat’s 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.”.

The meaning is unclear, but many sources speculate that it is a reference to a popular children’s game: cat’s cradle.

Cat’s cradle is a two-person game played with a string tied in a circle. The two people use their hands to make different shapes with the string.

Other sources speculate that perhaps it is a reference to an old myth that cats steal the breath of babies in the cradle, killing them.

One less common explanation is that people may use this to reference a missed childhood, or always breaking plans with someone. This is because that is the subject of the song.

Examples of Cat’s in the Cradle

the cats in the cradle definition This example shows two women discussing how to balance their professional lives with their home lives.

Bella: Hannah, do you ever feel overwhelmed?

Hannah: With work?

Bella: With work and your family. My husband and I were just talking last night about how we always feel like we spend too much time at work to really have enough time with each other and the kids. On the other hand, we always feel like we spend too much time at home to really be our best at work.

Hannah: I think everyone feels that way. It’s like that song “Cat’s in the cradle.”

Bella: Which song is that?

Hannah: It’s the one that goes:

And the cat’s 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

It’s all about a father never spending enough time with his son until it’s too late, and the son is all grown up.

Bella: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that one.

cats in the cradle lyricsThe following example shows two college students whispering to each other in class.

Hanh: What’s the matter? You look upset?

Zhongyi: My son just said dada for the first time today, and I didn’t even have time to stay with him and enjoy it. I had to leave for this class.

Hanh: That’s too bad that you had to leave, but it’s great that he said it!

Zhongyi: Yeah. I feel like it’s a cat’s in the cradle situation. I never have enough time to be with my son when it means the most.

More Examples

The excerpt uses the expression to mean that a new season of a TV show has started.

  • Was Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle the right song for this Nissan Super Bowl ad? It’s touching. And it fits the theme of the father/son bonding. –USA Today

The second example is from an article about fatherhood.

  • As he warms up, Manoukian mentions how every father should listen to and take to heart Harry Chapin’s classic 1974 folk song “Cat’s in the Cradle” about a father who was too busy for his son until one day when his son was too busy for him. –Indianapolis Star

Summary

The phrase cat’s in the cradle is a line from a popular song that people sometimes quote to reference the song itself, or the theme of fatherhood, or the theme of not having enough time to spend on a relationship.