As a theologian, I find it highly disturbing when I see parents say things like ‘Jesus sees you’ or ‘Jesus will punish you’ as a corrective. There are both pragmatic and theological reasons for this.
First, the pragmatic… I have seen many people who grew up with this type of corrective rebel as they got older. Introducing this kind of external motivation not to do things that the parent doesn’t like can feel oppressive and overwhelming. This can be particularly damaging in strict households that don’t allow ‘questionable’ activities such as reading Harry Potter, as G-d becomes seen as a cosmic killjoy. This is certainly not the way most of us want our kids to see G-d.
This brings us to the theological. What do we believe about G-d? I will be speaking here from the Christian tradition. Some people see the G-d of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and the New Testament as different — almost incompatible. Certainly our Jewish friends believe this! The Hebrew Bible focuses on fallen nature of mankind — the expectations of G-d and on mankind’s inability to meet those expectations. The New Testament focuses on G-d’s method of redemption — the solution to the problem set up in the Hebrew Bible.
The Hebrew Bible offers grace in the form of sacrifice — but even this was too difficult for mankind. The New Testament provides an easier form of grace that mankind is more capable of accomplishing. Some might ask why G-d would wait so long to offer this easier grace. The answer is simple — free will and pragmatism! Free will demands that people are allowed to do what they will. Pragmatism suggests that, if a solution were to be offered, it would need to be able to be spread as quickly as possible. In the ancient near east at the time of Christ, there was an explosion in terms of exchange of ideas, much like today with the internet. The expansion of the Roman Empire and the road system that they built encouraged trade, and this combined with the movements of the Roman army helped to move ideas from region to region. The result is that the new form of grace had a chance to spread.
So, how does this apply to our understanding of G-d and how we discipline children? First, G-d is a G-d of grace. Second, he is interested in a relationship with mankind (something that can only be accomplished with free will). Third, he is a G-d of justice.
Some object to the notion of G-d due to the concept of hell. Perhaps we have failed to properly present the reason and need for hell. It is not about punishment, per se. It is about G-d’s respect of mankind’s wishes. In other words, if an individual decides to be separate from G-d, why would G-d then demand that they spend eternity with him? This would be a denial of mankind’s free will. Instead, G-d provides a place for people to be separate from him. The result is that this is a place absent of good, and is therefore not pleasant.
Back to kids, G-d should be presented as someone who wants to know the kids, and someone who they want to know. Now, if some pervert was watching you in the bathroom, spying on you all of the time, and constantly looking to punish you, would that be someone who you would want to know? Absolutely not… and it is not consistent with what we know of G-d.
Focus instead on instructing the kids to do good things — helping that old lady across the street would make G-d happy. Worry less about the bad things that kids do, and certainly do not lay punishment at G-d’s feet. Instead, use the traditional analogy of G-d as father. The kid knows that their father loves them, and that their father also punishes them. They also know that this does not mean that their father loves them any less, or that he wants evil to come upon them. The subconscious mind will make the connection on its own as you talk about G-d as the father, without the perception being that G-d is a cosmic killjoy.