Start by letting your children tackle little activities and following up with praise when they succeed.
1.Take Two Steps Back
If your young child dresses herself, resist the urge to say, "Why don't you wear this shirt instead?" Say, "Good for you! You got dressed all by yourself." If your child makes his bed, say, "Great job!" not "It still looks kind of messy." The goal is to encourage independence, not to have photo-ready children or bedrooms.
2. Make Jobs a Little Easier
Does she want to make herself breakfast, but it's still a little too complicated? Leave out the bowl and cereal box, and place a small container of milk within reach. (A gallon is too big for little hands.) Is he overwhelmed by all the thank-you notes he's supposed to write? Offer to help out by saying, "I'll address the envelopes, and you can write the notes. I'll work next to you. What music should we put on?"
3. Offer Pep Talks and Treats
Does she need a nudge to clean up her room? Of course she does! It's not a jolly job. Give a mini pep talk by saying, "Just think how great you'll feel when everything's put away. I'll come peek in 15 minutes, OK?" Some kids find it motivating to have a kitchen timer or phone stopwatch to get them started. Others like to know there will be stickers or treats at the finish line. Since you don't want all rewards to be edible, try giving your child a ticket for, say, 10 extra minutes of screen time.
4. Compliment the Small Steps
Positive words go a long way in establishing good habits. Let them know that little things make a big difference by saying things like "I really appreciate you rinsing out your cereal bowl," "Thanks for hanging up the towel," "Hooray, you remembered to put your glass into the sink," or "It was helpful that you took your shoes into your room. You used to leave them everywhere."
5. Deliver Praise Indirectly, Too
Speaking of praise, let your child hear you say nice things about him to someone else. For example: "Tyler cleaned out his closet. I'm so proud of him." Or, "Cara finished another library book. Can you believe what a good reader she is?" Praise the kid who is within earshot, not the sibling who is off playing ball.
6. Have Them Help
Instead of setting the table, cooking the meal, cleaning up, and then resenting your kids for playing or watching TV, enlist one child at a time to keep you company, such as: "Aidan, you help me today, and Madison will help out tomorrow." Give your helper clear directions, and use the time as an opportunity to build closeness, not a chance to perfect napkin-folding skills. And if your child says, "I need a clean jersey by tomorrow!" say, "I'll show you how to do laundry. That way we can avoid this problem in the future."
7. Get Back to Basics
Rather than saying for the 80th time, "Jamal, go brush your teeth," smile and try, "Hey, it's bedtime. You don't need me to remind you to brush your teeth, do you? Go get ready, and I'll come in five minutes to say goodnight." Or hang a colorful sign on the back of the bathroom door that says: "If you ignore your teeth, they'll go away."
8. Keep Them Reading
If your daughter or son says, "I'm bored," that's not your cue to drop everything and head to the park. Make sure your kids have library cards and fun books around that have nothing to do with schoolwork. Hand your kids blank diaries to write or draw in themselves. Good diaries for middle-grade kids to read, and perhaps draw inspiration from, include "Ava and Pip" (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) and "The Diary of Melanie Martin" (Knopf), as well as series like "Dork Diaries" (Aladdin), and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" (Amulet).
9. Give Clues, Not Solutions
Once again, you hear: "Mom, do we have any Scotch tape?" Instead of racing over with tape, say:
"Yes. It's where it always is."
"In the top drawer of the bureau."
"Can you get it for me?"
"No, but after you use it, be sure to put it back, thanks."
Try not to sound coy or scolding, just comfortably matter-of-fact. Next time, he'll know where the tape is—or the toilet paper, the colored pencils, the batteries or whatever else he is looking for.