The Importance of Following Through Every TimeToddlers are creatures of habit and they feel secure when they know that they can depend on the adults in their lives to be predictable. They like waking up at the same time every day, they like naps at the same time every day, and they readily accept the routines we set for them like bath-story-drink-bedtime. The same is true of discipline. When your toddler knows what to expect, it sets up a framework that he can operate inside of. There will always be testing of the boundaries (that's what growing up is all about) but once your child learns where those boundaries are, he'll operate within them until there's some sort of change.
When you don't provide consistency, you teach your child that you are unpredictable and this can be scary or unsettling to a child. When you say one thing, but do another, you only confuse your child and set up a precedent that you cannot be taken at your word. This makes it hard for your toddler to trust you. When you say that you are going to do something and you do not follow through (for example, by giving lots of warnings, each ending in a promise of time out that never gets enforced or you count to 3 but hit 2-and-a-quarter, 2-and-a-half and 2-and-three-quarters along the way) then you're sending the message that you don't mean what you say at all.
More than anything else I know of, a lack of consistency and follow-through are the biggest predictors of future misbehavior in a toddler. Though time outs and consequences are hard to enforce at first, especially when you're exhausted from dealing with an active child and busy life, know that it gets easier the more you put it into practice. You'll find that, in time, much of your exhaustion will be lifted since won't be haggling over discipline all the time.
What to Do When You're Not at Home
When you're at a family member's home, out shopping or dining out, discipline is just as important. In fact, it might be even more important since family time rules are often more bendable and forgiving than society rules. There may be one or two tables with parents who understand what it's like to have a screaming toddler holding you hostage at a restaurant, but the rest of the tables will be staring you down in an effort to get you to do something about your child's behavior. And do something, you should. If your toddler knows that you won't follow through on discipline away from home, chances are, that's going to be the very place where you can expect his worst behavior.
Follow, as best you can, the same steps you do at home. Start with a warning: "You may not throw your fork at the table." Find a quiet, out-of-the-way spot, start the timer on your phone or keep an eye on your watch, and make sure your child completes the full time out. Return to the table without animosity or anger, expecting that your child will behave, but be ready to take charge should he misbehave again. This is especially true the first few times you enforce time out away from home. You want to give him the message that you mean it so that he doesn't feel the need to test.
And remember, don't feel bad about disciplining your child in public. Most people will be happy that you are taking action and will respect you for it. If you let your fear of what other people think of your parenting skills get in the way, you're sending a message to your child that there are special rules that apply when you're in public and one of those rules is that he's the one in charge, not you.
As in most parenting situations, there is no one-size-fits-all method of toddler discipline. The more discipline tools you have at your disposal the better. Parents may find that the more they rely on one single method, the less effective that method becomes. When you use time out, pay close attention to your child's reaction. Be as consistent as possible, but remain flexible if you find that what you're doing isn't working any longer. You might want to try one of these other toddler discipline techniques instead.