When my son Aaron had to write an essay in school this year about a difficult experience in his life, he chose to write about having to go to a Christian summer camp for a week. Bad food, a counselor he was certain “hated children,” boring chapel services, cabins he felt were far too dirty and rustic (he’s kind of a neat freak), made it a difficult time. Truth be told, I think he may have been a bit homesick. He wouldn’t go on church retreats or to “away” camps for a long time after that.

But the one thing you can count on when parenting teens is that you can’t count on anything. These years are a time of constant transformation and reinvention, exploration and growth. So I really should not be surprised that this weekend he’s away at a church retreat for our junior high students—but this time, as a volunteer staff person.

He’s just finished his freshman year of high school, and has decided to help out with our church’s junior high ministry, starting by going on this weekend retreat. A couple of friends encouraged him to volunteer for the summer with our very cool ministry to junior high students, which he graduated from only a year ago. He’s always been a bit shy, reserved. But this year, his confidence is blossoming in surprising ways.

Aaron’s a kid who learns by observing. He’s watched his older sister volunteer in our children’s ministry, in the three-year-old room, and noticed the joy she gets from that weekly service. He’s heard our family talk about being difference makers, about using our spiritual gifts.

So he was open to the phone call from the adult leader who formally invited him to go through the interview and application process to be a student leader. The leader left him a voicemail and told him that several other adults in the ministry—including the director, who baptized Aaron a year ago—had talked about what a quality person he was. “You come highly recommended,” the leader said. Aaron told me about getting that message with pride. “Mom, I’m highly recommended,” he said.

It was a teachable moment. “Buddy, I am so proud of you,” I told him. “That means more to me than good grades or doing well in sports, because someone is recognizing that you are a man of character and integrity.” He nodded, listening. “I love that people can see that you have a strong spiritual life—that’s what really matters.” (I later emailed the director and thanked him for his positive words about my son).

Service to others is often a path to self-discovery. When you serve, you discover gifts you might not otherwise even know that you possess. That’s what makes service valuable not just to those who are being served, but to the person who is serving. This is true whether you are 15 or 50.

On the way to drop him off at church for the retreat, I reminded him to focus on serving. I gently suggested that he reach out to kids there who seemed to be feeling a little left out or homesick. I told him again I was proud of him, knew he would do a great job this weekend.

Parents, do you speak words of affirmation to your teenagers? Do you communicate that character matters to you? Are you a part of a community that helps you raise your kids, recognizes their strengths and names them? Do you model your values for them by serving others? Do you say thank you to the people in your church or community who build into your kids?