As most of my friends know, I am a lifelong fan of the sophisticated and erudite sport known as professional wrestling. I love the combination of athleticism and performance that it offers, especially the style that was popular during my childhood. When I was a kid, wrestling was primarily a regional rather than national business. There were various “territories” around the country, each with its own championship and superstar. In my case, I lived in the part of Kentucky included in the Memphis territory, and the top dog in that promotion was Jerry “the King” Lawler.

The Memphis territory was in the opinion of many old-school fans the most exciting and entertaining of the regional promotions. As of right now, there are four separate podcasts that focus on the golden years in Memphis, a testimony to its popularity. One of those is a podcast called Dinner with the King, featuring “the King” himself! It is always a fun show.

Until this morning.

This morning, the podcast was about the tragic and untimely passing of Lawler’s son, Brian. On July 29, Brian died after apparently taking his own life in a prison cell in west Tennessee. He had been arrested for DUI for the third time, leading to mandatory jail time. The plan was for him to cool off in prison and then enter rehab, but instead, he was found unconscious, and eventually pronounced dead. On the podcast this morning Lawler indicated that there were several irregularities in the case, and a further investigation is being made. But none of this will change the fact that the King had to bury his own son.

There is a part of me that feels very guilty about my obsession with professional wrestling because of the tremendous toll the sport has taken on the superstars I’ve enjoyed so much through the years. Many of the wrestlers that entertained me as a child are crippled, broke, or dead. Between the physical rigors of the work in the ring and the lifestyle on the road outside of the ring, professional wrestlers (especially from my generation) paid a steep price for their line of work.

And frequently, this cost was passed on to their families. The world of professional wrestling is filled with broken marriages and troubled children. Some of you may have watched the excellent 30 for 30 on another childhood favorite of mine, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, in which he talked about the death of his son, Reid, from a drug overdose. In a poignant scene from the documentary, Flair said this:

“I say it every day: ‘God, I wish you were here. I had so much fun with you. And I regret the fact that I sometimes was your best friend instead of your dad.’ 

A best friend instead of a dad.

Lawler said much the same thing in his autobiography published several years ago. He acknowledged that he permitted life on the road to interfere with his commitment to his family, and admitted that he spent more time with Brian as a colleague than as a parent.

“It’s more like we’re a couple of boys in the business together rather than father and son.” (It’s Good to be the King…Sometimes, p. 96).

And now, both men – at the time in life when the relationship between a father and son should indeed blossom into a special sort of friendship – are instead grieving their sons.

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Parents, your children need you to be parents, not friends, so that someday you will reach that sweet spot in life where you can be best friends. But you cannot short-circuit this process. If you try to be a friend rather than a parent, your child will end up having neither.

In my lifetime I believe I have witnessed a profound shift in the way parents (at least in America) view their role as parents. I am old enough that I remember a time when if a child got in trouble at school, the child got in bigger trouble at home. Now, if a child gets reprimanded by a teacher (or a coach or a Scout leader or preacher), the reflexive impulse of parents is to defend their child and attack the disciplinarian. I recently met a retired high school teacher who told me she knew it was time to leave the English classroom because her administration told her she could no longer grade papers in red ink since it hurt the children’s feelings.

Seriously!

All of this is part of a much broader societal shift toward emotionalism and away from rationalism. How a person feels trumps the rational pursuit of objective truth. Applied to parental discipline, this mindset is toxic. And it is ultimately heartbreaking.

Children need limits. They need encouraging discipline. They need someone to teach them that how they feel is secondary to what is right. They need parents to do this, not friends. But when parents avoid or abandon this responsibility out of some ill-conceived desire to be their child’s best friend, they are causing harm to their child and robbing themselves of the unique blessing of friendship that mature children truly do offer.

Parents, don’t make excuses for your kids because you want to be a “buddy.” Don’t be afraid to discipline them because you fear you may lose them if you do. And don’t avoid the hard work of patient correction just because your child gets upset. Be a parent first, not a friend first. Too many grieving mothers and fathers have learned the truth of this ancient proverb the hard way.

Discipline your son, for there is hope;
    do not set your heart on putting him to death. (Proverbs 19:18)