The song's lyrics began as a poem written by Harry's wife, Sandra "Sandy" Gaston; the poem itself was inspired by the awkward relationship between her first husband, James Cashmore, and his father, John, a politician who served as Brooklynborough president. She was also inspired by a country music song she had heard on the radio. Chapin also said the song was about his own relationship with his son, Josh, admitting, "Frankly, this song scares me to death."
In Chapin's version, the chorus changes from "when you coming home, dad?" to "when you coming home, son?", as the child grows up, and the situation changes from a busy father neglecting his son to a busy son neglecting his father. In Ugly Kid Joe's version, all the choruses use the same words with a subtle change from "When you coming home? Son, I don't know when", to "When you coming home, son? I don't know when."
A version of this song was recorded as "Just Like Me" by DMC featuring Sarah McLachlan. This version used the same melody and almost the same chorus lyrics, but with entirely revised lyrics in the verses so as to make the song about DMC's adoption and feelings towards his birth mother. The recording appeared on DMC's 2006 album Checks Thugs and Rock n Roll as well as McLachlan's 2008 compilation Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff Volume 2.
Donkey sings this to Shrek in Shrek the Third after Shrek learns he's going to be a father.
The song is also used in the enhanced version of the 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto V in the songlist for the game's Los Santos Rock Radio station.
The titles of the Boy Meets World episodes "I'm Gonna be Like You, Dad" and "We'll Have a Good Time Then" quote from the song.
Quitline uses the song to enforce the notion of premature death of parents because of their smoking habits.
The song is central to the theme of The Goldbergs episode, “In Conclusion – Thanksgiving".
In S5E9 (2013) of “The Middle“ Mike tells his son Axl about “this song from the 70s“ and its content when Axl is home from college over Christmas break and prefers a party over quality time with his family on Christmas Eve.