And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home son?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then
–Harry Chapin, Cat In the Cradle
I was finishing grad school and working two jobs when our sons were born. I tried to do it all, but something had to give because the family was getting crumbs. Jon and Tim saw little of their daddy for the first few months of their lives.
I was raised in a Cat-in-the-Cradle family, which was the song’s era. My father was a wonderful provider but personal time did not come easy or often. Harry Chapin’s folk song of 1974 immortalized the sad role reversal of an ignored child growing up to be just like his dad, whom he now ignores. I remember asking my dad numerous times to shoot hoops or to play catch while he relaxed on the couch watching Saturday sports on TV. After pausing, he would ask me to come back in a little while, which I always did. Then predictably, he would respond, “I guess not right now.” I noticed my older brother quit asking, and after a few attempts, I too gave up. Hearing “No” became my normal expectation.
Was I going to be just like my dad? In many ways I wanted to emulate him, but not by preoccupation with other interests and lack of attention. I was certainly at a crossroads. Our sons were challenging me to be a different parent. Would I learn and change, or repeat the habits of my father? Would I be the dad who is emotionally absent, or truly be present for my children? The commodity none of us have—time, could tangibly measure the answer.
Almost every father believes in the importance of loving his child. But believing is not the problem. It’s the doing. What loving father wouldn’t give his life for their son or daughter? But our children aren’t asking for our lives, just our time.
Ultimately, love is spelled T I M E.
Time is the currency of all relationships. It’s costly because we only get 24 hours per day. Once we spend an hour, it can’t be recaptured—it’s gone forever. Loving my kids through spending T I M E would be expensive, but the price tag for losing touch with my children was much too high. I could buy back the lost moments when my sons were tiny, but I would not have this option when they were grown. To rewrite the lyric and my story, I wanted to have a good time now.
I made three drastic changes in my schedule, after counting the cost. The first was easy as a dad. We spent time having physical fun. When they were little, we wrestled. As they grew older, we played soccer and hoops. Then came surfing and rock ‘n’ roll. Love changes forms as kids grow and change.
The second adjustment came at night. Before they could read, I read to them, mostly C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. These stories developed their imagination, their love for reading and their attention span, while creating a deep bond. We still discuss books and authors over a good cup of coffee.
Finally, and most important, I learned to never say no to their requests to spend time together. If they wanted to be with me, the answer was “Yes!” Sometimes it meant playing catch after a long day, or paddling out in frigid, windblown surf, or staying awake for midnight conversations or even late night L.A. rock shows.
I wanted to be available to accept their invitations whenever humanly possible. We still live by this motto: Never say no. When our now adult sons or grandchildren ask us to climb a tree, build a sand castle or go for breakfast, we look for the yes. This is how we build relationships with those we love.
This is how we rewrite Cat’s In the Cradle: Never Say NO. Find the Yes.
Dr. Mark Foreman co-authored the book Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids with his wife Jan Foreman. NeverSayNo.co