Harry Chapin’s 1974 folk rock song “Cat’s in the Cradle” sings the story of a dad who is too busy achieving the fabled American dream to stop and be a father to his boy; always answering his son’s repeated pleas for attention with “I’ve got a lot to do”. And as often happens; junior follows in dad’s footsteps. As the song progresses, and like a textbook case of karma, dad finds himself retired with time to reflect on the past and mortality with his own requests for son’s attention being answered with the reminiscent “I’ve got a lot to do”. The tune culminates with the father’s admission that his son has regrettably “grown up just like me”. Harry’s own upbringing was supposedly the inspiration for his tune.
Any average American kid growing up in the 70‘s or 80‘s heard this song countless times and, if like me, chalked it up to some cheesy spin on a kid’s nursery rhyme. But maturity and closer examination finds that the song is a fair depiction for far too many of today’s fathers.
“My son turned 10 just the other day”,
he said, “thanks for the ball dad, come on lets play”.
“Can you team me to throw?” I said, “Not today,
I got a lot to do.” He said, “That’s ok.”
These lyrics echo the approach for many twenty-first century parents. For this dad, the act of buying the baseball alleviated the desire, or at minimum the obligation, to actually be a father to his son. Is it so different now? The baseball is simply replaced by a video game, iTouch, cell phone, or another random shiny object. Have you ever bought your child a gift in lieu of your time? As if that new toy might somehow make up for those times you’re out of town or watching the championship game with your buddies instead of throwing the football with your kid?
For today’s dad, in addition to the conferences, trade shows, and meetings that cause us to lose valuable time with them; technical achievements have given birth to blackberries, email, and text messages that posses an inexplicable strength to distract us. When was the last time you stopped playing or doing homework with them to check the red-flashing light on your Curve or take that after hours phone call from your boss or a client? I’m guilty of this more than I care to admit. Am I doing that much for my career by checking email right then or not letting that call just go to voice mail? As fathers we fail to grasp, much like Harry’s song, that our children see this. They can easily comprehend, during these times, that they are not the number one priority. And the more we react this way the deeper that message is planted. Is it any wonder so many parents complain how their older children never want to spend time with them?
Just like how we make time for our careers or our golf game, shouldn’t we also carve out consistent time for our children? There is so much that competes for their attention and it is on us to break through Nickelodeon and Facebook to take a proactive role in their lives. Much like our adult electronic toys, Hanna Montana and Sponge Bob are vying for our children’s’ eyes and ears with their own message that probably doesn’t agree with ours. I know how easy it is to blow off our elder’s advice of “enjoy of them while you can” when they are still young and rely so completely on us. It’s extremely easy to take for granted anything or anyone that is always there. But even now, at eight and six, I have begun to see signs of changing loyalty within my own kids. Before, they would stop everything they were doing to talk with me on the phone, now the reply is often “I’ll call him back”, yet no call ever comes. It’s becoming much easier for me to see the day when their friends will take priority in their lives. When the idea of hanging with dad sounds as appealing to them as yard work. Before that happens the only thing I can hope is to be more steadfast in our time together. When I’m with my kids, then I need to be committed to focusing on them and not treating every email or phone call likes it’s coming from the President. Otherwise I risk ending up having to admit that they’ve grown up just like me.