The Secret to Raising Self-Driven Kids

7 tips for helping children take control of their lives


Published:

Photo courtesy of Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock.com

The idea of an independent, confident teenager is quintessentially American. But somewhere between the self-esteem movement of the 1990s and society’s apparent obsession with perfection, there’s a school of thought out there that today’s kids have gotten off track.

The pressure to be perfect is inescapable. Kids absorb it from well-meaning parents, peers at school and social media. As a result, rising numbers of young people suffer from self-doubt and anxiety.

The antidote? According to neuropsychologist William Stixrud and self-proclaimed test-prep geek Ned Johnson, the key to overcoming anxiety and becoming a confident adult is control. Stixrud, who has spent 30 years helping teens with learning and anxiety disorders, teamed up with Johnson, who has spent 30 years calming overachieving teens, to write “Raising the Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives” (Penguin, 2018).

Whether you have a toddler or teenager, there are steps you can take to help your child take control of his or her life and move toward that confident, self-motivated American ideal.


Be a Consultant

What kind of parent are you? If you are a “Tiger Mom” who pushes your child to hit tennis balls six hours a day and practice piano for six hours a night, it’s unlikely your child has much opportunity to be in control of his or her life. On the other extreme, if you are a permissive parent, it’s unlikely your child has a chance to develop the sense of discipline he or she needs to be independent and self-motivated.

There is, Stixrud suggests, a parenting “sweet spot” — somewhere between authoritarian and laissez-faire, where a child is given just the right amount of independence and just the right amount of guidance.

“Be a consultant, not a director,” he recommends. A “consultant” parent provides basic rules and structure, and as much advice as needed, but does not insist on definite goals.

Consider also your definition of “success.” If you immediately picture your child as a wealthy banker in New York, that’s fine. But keep it to yourself. Your child is already facing a world in which success is narrowly defined, Stixrud says.

“Kids believe that if they don’t have straight A’s they won’t get into an elite college, and that if they don’t go to an elite college, they are going to have a C+ life,” Stixrud says. He laments that low-achieving kids often give up before they start, and high-achieving kids lose sleep over an A-. Make sure you’re helping your child see the broader possibilities rather than further limiting the field.


Avoid Comparisons

Every child is different and will require responsive adjustments in parenting style. Avoid comparing your child to his peers — or even siblings. An older sister might thrive playing club soccer and easily get straight A’s, while her younger brother might need quiet afternoons perched in his treehouse and earn mostly B’s. Stixrud points out that there is a low correlation between high school grades and later success.

Instead of casting about for ideals in the media, or imposing your own expectations, take a close look at your child. Encourage her interests. Pursuing a passion — whether for modern dance or rock collecting — allows a child to experience the satisfaction of working hard at something she enjoys.

Remember that your child will change as he matures. “We see kids who are a disaster of motivation, but as their prefrontal cortex develops, they come out of it,” Johnson says. “A child might be killing it at age 10, but might not be at the head of the pack at age 30. Prodigies don’t typically end up being musicians. And kids who are a mess now, are not necessarily a mess forever.”


Address Anxiety

A certain amount of stress can be good, Johnson says. He and Stixrud call this “optimal” stress, and explain that stress and competition actually increase motivation and productivity, up to a point. “Past that point,” Johnson says, “the fear of totally blowing it outweighs the motivation to excel.”

If anxiety is affecting you or your child’s daily life, address it. “Stress is contagious,” Johnson says. “It can affect the whole family.”

You can normalize stress by bringing it up at the dinner table.

“Talking about a situation you are dealing with is a great way to introduce coping mechanisms,” suggests Abby Pressel, a licensed psychologist with Chapel Hill Pediatric Psychology. “You can mention practical ways you manage anxiety, such as focusing on relaxing your muscles and regulating your breathing.”

When your child is worried about a specific problem, listen and acknowledge her concerns. At the same time, gently challenge her assumptions. “Often, anxiety can be irrational,” Pressel says. “Try to put data behind the fear.”

David Graham, a counselor at Davidson College, says students who successfully navigate the stresses of college are those who have outlets for stress, like a sports team, exercise class, favorite club or religious group. Help your child find some activity that allows him to relax.


Let Your Child Take Ownership

“Autonomy research is dramatic,” Johnson says. “There have been studies in retirement homes that show if you give people choices, they live longer.”

He points out that today’s kids have very little autonomy, spending most of their day at school where they have to raise their hand to speak or go to the bathroom. Afternoons and weekends tend to be overscheduled, leaving kids little opportunity for creative play, getting bored or having to figure out how to spend their day. Then, suddenly, in college they are free to do anything they want, Johnson points out. Before they go, help them feel internally motivated and confident enough to make decisions and advocate for themselves.

Lucy Dunning, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks in Charlotte, suggests letting your child practice choice-making. “Kids are conditioned to wait and be directed,” she says. “You can boost your child’s confidence — even very young children — by letting them make choices, whether that is deciding on dinner or on what clothes to wear.”

To keep things within the realm of reason, you can offer children a choice among a few safe options, she suggests.

Eric Lipp, a Duke Cancer Institute senior clinical research coordinator whose seventh-grade daughter recently kickstarted a recycling program at her school, swears by the value of chores. Committed to raising self-sufficient and confident children, he and his wife Sharon, a psychiatric nurse, required their two girls to take on responsibility for household tasks before they could read.

“We made them a chart with pictures,” Lipp says. “Brushing teeth, getting dressed, tying shoes, putting away toys. They would put a check beside each picture once they’d finished.”

Stixrud and Johnson point out that while the decision-making part of the brain does not fully mature until a person’s mid-20s, this does not mean young people are bad at making decisions.


Give Your Child Space to Fail

As a parent, watching your child fail can be excruciating. It’s tempting to “fix” things — to talk a teacher out of a low grade, beg a coach for a spot on the soccer team or step in to repair damaged friendships. But your child will struggle in the adult world if she never experiences failure growing up. Part of giving your child the freedom to choose is allowing her the freedom to make the wrong choice, i.e., the freedom to fail.

Graham says a large number of Davidson College students — about 45 percent — visit the school’s heath center for counseling, and that many of them have anxiety issues. “These are high-achieving students, most of whom have always excelled at academics,” he says. “For them, getting a B for the first time can be devastating. They have never had to build up the resiliency.”

Graham advises parents of middle- and high-schoolers to revisit their toddler-parenting strategies. “When your baby is learning to walk, and she falls, you encourage her to get back up. And she does. She gets back up and she walks,” he says.

Introduce your child to role models who have struggled to achieve. Thomas Edison, who failed thousands of times before making a successful lightbulb, is famously quoted as saying, “I’ve not failed, I successfully found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In addition to external role models, be a model yourself. Teach self-encouragement by embracing your mistakes and sharing your strategies for overcoming them.

Praise effort, not result. “It is helpful to frame experiences in terms of learning and growth rather than on an outcome or a grade,” Pressel says. “Being comfortable with imperfection makes you more confident, and more likely to try new experiences.”


Provide Structure

Dunning believes kids need rules to thrive, but that parents should be authoritative rather than authoritarian.

Parents should be providing kids with a framework for behavior,” she says. “And then, as kids get older, parents should gradually back away.” She says children understand consequences, so parents can define behavior in terms of choice. “If your child chooses to miss curfew, then they have chosen to stay at home the following night,” she says.

Technology and social media are a wild west for rules and structure. Stixrud recommends family-wide policies.

“It’s easy enough to place limits on video games when a child is young, but much harder as they get older,” he says. “Make a family rule that everyone will charge phones in the kitchen at night. Parents included.” It is vital to follow the rules yourself.


Allow for 'Radical Downtime'

Graham says many of the freshmen he counsels at Davidson College are troubled by the 24/7 nature of college.

“It’s hard to find a safe place on campus with no onlookers,” he says. “There is nowhere to let down your guard.” As long as students feel they are “flying under the radar” they are OK, but if they get attention, “it’s like being under a microscope,” he says.

For a high-schooler, home should be that safe place college students are missing. Many of the parents Stixrud has talked to say that evenings with their teens can be like World War III, consisting of constant battles over homework. He suggests that instead of pestering your child about getting his homework done, simply let him know you are there to help. “Tell them you love them too much to fight about homework,” he says. “The fighting makes them less motivated to do the work, and is stressful to you as well.”

To escape what Johnson calls the “mind-numbing effects” of social media, he and Stixrud recommend excluding technology during downtime at home, and have introduced the concept of “radical downtime,” which includes doing nothing at all and allows a child to daydream, meditate, sleep and relax.

“Have Sunday mornings just be for pancakes,” Johnson says.


Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer in Durham.

 

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August 2018

Run Club meets every Sunday at 8 a.m. in Midtown Raleigh or Wake Forest. Stroller friendly; children invited. 

Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

Where:
Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: FIT4MOM
Telephone: 919-348-0472
Contact Name: Missy Currin
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June 30-August 12; 8:30 a.m.– 5:00 p.m. Come to Historic Yates Mill to see a new temporary exhibit, Rich in the Rare, on loan from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. This...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Shop antiques, crafts and art, and enjoy food trucks at this artisan and vintage market in downtown Cary.

Cost: Free

Where:
Fidelity Bank Parking Lot
100 W. Chatham St.
Cary, NC  27511
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Contact Name: Leslie & Jessica
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Children make treasured memories while increasing their knowledge of plants and animals. Ages 7-10. Register online.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Join staff and volunteers from the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) and Raleigh Astronomy Club (RAC) for a free skywatching...

Cost: Free

Where:
Dorothea Dix Park
2105 Umstead Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Examine “Shinrin-yoku," a Japanese healing technique that "takes in the forest atmosphere." Visit a natural area in the park and walk in a relaxed way to receive calming,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Contact Name: Rebecca Cope
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Squish, touch and feel your way through center-based activities to explore the senses.  Make a smelly painting and splash in a sink/float bucket. Ages 18 months-3 years with an...

Cost: $2/child

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Enjoy a family-friendly movie. See the website for the movie title. Showings at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Crabtree Valley Mall
4325 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27612
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Observe the 41st anniversary of Elvis' passing by seeing two tribute bands, Scot Bruce and The Fab Four, face off in an adrenaline-pumping musical showdown. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $35-$65

Where:
Fletcher Opera Theater
2 E South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy live entertainment, hands-on projects and gallery hunts.

Cost: Free

Where:
Nasher Museum of Art
2001 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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Meet a favorite princess or superhero from 11 a.m.-noon and 1-2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Where:
Crabtree Valley Mall
4325 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27612
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Learn froggy fun facts through trivia games and activities. Discover the differences and similarities between frogs and toads. All ages with adult. Registration required online. Meet...

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Weekly basic skills cooking class for children aged 5-10 at Whole Foods North Raleigh.  This free class meets each Tuesday at 4 p.m. and is offered by registering in advance...

Cost: Free

Where:
Whole Foods Market (North Raleigh)
8710 Six Forks Road
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Take the family for Kids Night at Chick-Fil-A in Garner. Enjoy a free indoor playspace, face painting and balloon twisting with Mimi the Clown. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Chick-Fil-A
2720 Timber Dr.
Garner, NC  27529
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Sponsor: The MelodyMaker Entertainment
Telephone: (919)639-9328
Contact Name: Melody Scruggs
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Enjoy live entertainment, hands-on projects and gallery hunts.

Cost: Free

Where:
Nasher Museum of Art
2001 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Read "Froggie Babies" by Suzanne Farrior and make a froggy craft. Practice jumping skills, learn to "ribbitt," and examine the differences between the frogs and toads. Ages...

Cost: $4/child

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
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See Happy Dan perform magic, comedy and more.

Cost: $5/person

Where:
Renaissance Centre
405 Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Enjoy a Build-A-Bear activity, storytime, games and painting from 11 a.m.-noon and 1-2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Where:
Crabtree Valley Mall
4325 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27612
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Expand your knowledge of our local flora and fauna by exploring a different area of the park each month. Join park staff as they "nerd out" over amphibians, birds, insects, spiders, and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Take your own poles or borrow one from the park through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic instruction are...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Parkway
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Take your own poles or borrow one from the park through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Celebrate National Tell a Joke Day by sharing some jokes with the park community. Meet in the Exhibit Hall. Drop-in program. All ages. Registration not required.

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Contact Name: Rebecca Cope
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Enjoy live entertainment, hands-on projects and gallery hunts.

Cost: Free

Where:
Nasher Museum of Art
2001 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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Enjoy an easy-paced and stroller-friendly walk along the greenway. Suggested for ages 3 and younger with parent. Register online. Choose course #219872.

Cost: Free

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2761
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Ages 7-12 enjoy fashion and design activities from 11 a.m.-noon.; ages 13-18 enjoy the same activities from 1-2 p.m.

Cost: Free

Where:
Crabtree Valley Mall
4325 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27612
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Celebrate Raleigh's creativity under the beautiful lights and cobblestone streets of City Market. Find locally-made goods and enjoy a night filled with music and entertainment with over 30...

Cost: Free

Where:
City Market
306 Parham St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Raleigh Night Market
Contact Name: Sara Buxton
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Enjoy live entertainment, hands-on projects and gallery hunts.

Cost: Free

Where:
Nasher Museum of Art
2001 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Website »

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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
View map »


Website »

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A wonderfully kid-paced hour featuring music, play and dancing with toddler stars singing on the mic at Cotton's gently amplified & participatory music show. Children delight in...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Pump It Up Raleigh
10700 World Trade Blvd, #112
Raleigh, NC  27617
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Sponsor: Pump it Up
Telephone: 919-828-3344
Contact Name: Owner/manager Kellie Paterson McHugh
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

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Experience the the excitement of wheelchair basketball in preparations for August Madness. Whether your team is practicing for August Madness or you're looking for a fun Friday activity, all...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Campus YMCA 'Cage' Court
304 Blackwell Street
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: Bridge II Sports
Telephone: 18668802742 x12
Contact Name: Katharine Doyle
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Take a walk with a park naturalist to explore the woods and fields at this special time of day.  Register online.

Cost: $3

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson Nature Preserve staff
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See the PG-rated movie under the stars at Booth Amphitheatre. After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother,and her friend to space in order to...

Cost: $5 ages 13 and older. Free for ages 12 and younger.

Where:
Booth Amphitheatre
8003 Regency Pkwy.
Cary, NC  27518
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Kindergarten students entering the traditional school calendar practice a lunch line, get moving at recess, hop on a school bus and more.  

Cost: Free

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Take a walk in the woods and discover the animals and plants that call the park home. Help collect data for our Natural Resource Inventory Database and other citizen science projects. All...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Young entrepreneurs, ages 6 -14, have an opportunity to sell their products or services to the general public. Participants can keep any profits from sales they make at the fair and will earn cash...

Cost: Free

Where:
Park West Village
Village Market Place
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Triangle Children's Business Fair
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Enjoy a celebration of products, services and resources for families featuring local organizations focusing on education, health and wellness, safety, special needs, child care and more....

Cost: Free

Where:
JD Lewis Multipurpose Center
2245 Garner Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Sunshine Family Expos
Telephone: 813-463-2712
Contact Name: Melinda Perez

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Enjoy live entertainment, hands-on projects and gallery hunts.

Cost: Free

Where:
Nasher Museum of Art
2001 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Website »

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Enjoy an interactive dance story and craft time. Ages 3-7. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Graceful Expressions Dance Education
312 W. Chatham St., #103
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: Graceful Expressions Dance Education
Telephone: 191-975-86003
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Search for snakes, salamanders, turtles and more. Ages 10-13. Register online.

Cost: $12/resident, $16/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Children's booksellers read their favorite picture books. All ages.

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
View map »


Website »

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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn more about pollinators during this family friendly event. Sample and buy local honey and honey-based products.

Cost: Free

Where:
State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Take the family for treats, music, art and more. See a special exhibit showcasing the work of Artspace's talented young artists.

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace
201 E. Davie St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Stop by a discovery table to learn fun about the animals that live in Crowder Pond. All ages. Registration required. The display table is located at the Upper Playground.

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd.
Apex, NC  27539
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Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Explore how bees pollinate flowers and help gardens grow. Discover how bee hives work and learn the ways that bee-keepers have historically housed and cared for their hives. All...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Explore the historic heart of downtown Raleigh on a walking tour of Fayetteville Street. Tours highlight the people, places, architecture and political movements that have shaped...

Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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See the PG-rated movie "Jurassic Park," part of the City of Raleigh's Movies by Moonlight series. Also enjoy food trucks. Register online....

Cost: Free

Where:
Dorothea Dix Park Flowers Field
2105 Umstead Dr.
Raleigh, NC
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh
Telephone: 919-996-6688
Contact Name: Joseph Voska
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