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Both songs explore the themes of childhood, adolescence and parenthood. In "Cat's in the Cradle" the narration is in the first person voice, and features a father who is speaking of his son and how he spends very little time with him when he is young. He misses milestones, like his son's first steps. With each verse, a number of years pass: birth, childhood, teenage years, college years, adulthood. The song's message seems to be that the child learns early on that fathers are not present in their children's lives. He repeatedly says "I'm gonna be like you, Dad," and when the father ages and wants to spend time with his son, the son is likewise too busy to see him. It is sad and ironic that the man who ignored his son's desire for play and leisure time is similarly ignored when he reaches old age and wants his own needs for companionship and attention fulfilled.
The song's chorus, made up of nursery rhymes and promises of time spent together that never happen, are wistful and hard-hitting at the same time. "You know we'll have a good time then" refers to moments that don't take place very often.
In "Circle Game" the narration is an omniscient, aloof voice, about "a child." The song is similar to Chapin's song in that it moves forward a number of years with each verse. There are similar themes of children being pushed aside or placated by adults; "words like 'when you're older' must appease him; and promises of 'some day' make his dreams." These lyrics also address the theme of time passing by quickly, so that many years have elapsed before one can realize their significance. The chorus, about seasons going "round and round" and "painted ponies" (as in a merry go round) going "up and down," is similar to "Cat's in the Cradle" in that both combine images of childhood with awareness of adult concerns, and the repetition of the words reiterates the passing of years and cycles that accumulate with age and maturity.
The ending of the song is far more hopeful than "Cat's in the Cradle" and acknowledges that we all witness the seasons passing, and that when we become adults we may better understand the responsibilities and pressures that our parents were going through when we were children.
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