Warning: LONGThese are some general ideas that I've collected over the years about how I disciplined our toddlers/young 3 year olds. (After kids hit 4, things change again, because they're a lot more able to discuss/verbalize things.)
None of these are original with me – all are things that I’ve gotten from books. I read parenting books a lot, and it is something that I recommend, because it really helps me figure out where I stand on things. Some books I love, some I hate, most I take a few ideas from.
First, remember that discipline = teaching. For me, good discipline means teaching the child what to do and what to expect. Also remember that learning new things takes time. Your 20 month old can’t tie their own shoes, so don’t expect them to learn to not throw their spaghetti on the floor in one day.
Before you discipline remember that children need to be well fed and well rested before they can learn anything. Feed your toddler every 2 hours. Make sure they get enough sleep. If you're both tired and cranky (dinner time), you're going to have more battles. Try to plan a quiet activity or a way to cool off then. If your child has been sick, expect their behavior to be "off" for the 10 days to 2 weeks it takes them to fully recover (even if they "look" OK).
Here are the general steps that worked for us:
1. Create a positive environment.
For me, this means child-proofing so my child is free to explore. The easiest way for a child to have a good experience is to simply be able to explore without limits because there’s nothing dangerous around. So, toys should be age-appropriate (that means no toys that they can take apart), books should be board books only, knick knacks should be put away, stereo equipment etc. should be behind doors/guards.
For others, this means helping their child explore the dangerous things until the urge is out. (That's easy to do with one, harder to do with more than one because your attention is divided.)
IMO, every child should have at least one room where they are free to explore. Our kitchen was one of these rooms. All drawers except 2 had strong latches on them. The 2 free drawers had pans in them. One cupboard was all theirs, full of tupperware and plastic baby bowls and glasses (and a few pans). The other room was the living room.
2. Make sure you fill up your child's cup of attention daily. If they get positive attention from you, they're less likely to act out just to get attention.
3. Decide whether a behavior is really worth stopping. Do I really care if my child takes ALL the puzzles off the shelf? Is it OK for my kids to slide down the stairs on an old crib mattress? Why shouldn't my kids ride their scooters in the house? (OK, they can't do it while I'm cooking dinner, but other times, why not?)
4. Find a way to honor the impulse if what they're doing isn't safe/acceptable to you.
Find something that the child CAN do that’s not the forbidden activity. So, if she wants to jump on the couch, put pillows on the floor and have her jump on those. If he wants to play in the toilet, set him up at the sink with a step stool, some bubbles and a few utensils.
5. Remember that it really helps to tell a child not only what they can’t do, but what they CAN do. So, instead of saying "don’t jump" say "don’t jump on the couch, come jump on the pillows."
6. Gently help them comply.
Under 3s are physical learners and sometimes need to be physically shown what you expect. Handing them the toy you want them to pick up. Gently helping them put their feet on the floor is more effective than telling them 5 times "feet on the floor".
7. Warn of consequences
Tell your child what to expect. "Don’t throw that truck or I’ll have to put it up to keep us safe. Please drive it on the floor."
8. Enforce consequences
This must be done consistently and the first time the child breaks the rule after you tell them not to. Enforcing it after telling them three times "if you throw that (again), I’ll take it." only teaches them that you don’t mean what you say, or that they've got 5-10 chances before they have to listen.
What are appropriate consequences for a child this age? First, try to 'help them' gently comply. If that doesn't work, then I apply:
1. Removing the toy if they’re not using it correctly.
2. Removing the child from the situation. Generally for children under 3, time-outs don’t do any good. They don't understand why they are there, and they don't link the punishment AFTER they've had the thrill of whatever it was to whatever it was they did. Just removing them to another location is generally enough. Go into another room with them and engage them in something else.
3. Remove yourself from the child. For example, if they're hurting you. So, if they hit, gently take their hand and say calmly "don’t hit. that hurts. You must be gentle (and demonstrate gentle)." If they do it again, then get up and say "Don’t hit, that hurts. I won’t play with you if you hit." and walk away.
4. If you’re losing it, then it’s probably best to separate yourself from your child until you’re calm enough to deal with them reasonably. I had to do this on some long days with our both our kids. I'd plop them in their cribs/rooms, and after 3-5 minutes, I could deal with them again.
After our kids hit 3, we do timeouts in our house on occasion. Almost always it's when things have gotten out of hand we need to separate to keep ourselves sane/safe. If my kids hit, they were levitated to their rooms until they calmed down. Sometimes we send a child to their room for interminable whining. If you've been offered a hug, a cuddle and an alternative to whatever is making you whine, and you're STILL whining, it's time for you to go be by yourself. My kids often feed off of my negative energy, so a separation (either me putting myself in my room or putting them in their room) was effective in breaking the cycle.