An article in New York magazine entitled “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” described Thomas, a gifted fifth-grader who attended a highly competitive school. In his school, prospective kindergarteners were given an IQ test to confirm their precociousness, and only the top one percent of all applicants was accepted. Thomas scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

Since Thomas could walk, he has always heard that he was smart. But as he progressed through school, this self-awareness didn’t always translate into fearless confidence in tackling his schoolwork.

In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at. Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately.”

The article explained that since 1969, with the publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which it was opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement.

“Anything potentially damaging to a kid’s self-esteem was axed. Soccer coaches handed out trophies to everyone, and teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.”

Studies over the past ten years, spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck, however, have concluded that high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement.

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

On the other hand, she explains, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control . . . Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Offering praise, the article concluded, has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting.

As parents, we obviously believe that genuine self-esteem is important to our children’s psychological and spiritual development. But how can we avoid the possible negative effects in praising our children’s achievements?

This week’s Torah reading, the first portion of the third book of the Torah, is called Vayikra, which means “He called.” It begins with G‑d calling to Moses from the Sanctuary to teach him the laws that he would transmit to the Jewish people.

There is an interesting anomaly in how the word vayikra is written in the Torah scroll. The last letter of the word, the letter aleph, is written in a small, undersized script. In contrast, the first letter of the opening word of the Book of Chronicles, “Adam”—also an aleph—is written with a large, oversized script.

What is the message of the small and large alephs? And do they perhaps hold a lesson for us as parents in how to help our children gain a positive and productive self-image?

The chassidic masters explain that Adam was formed by G‑d Himself, fashioned in the “divine image.” Aware of his superior qualities as “G‑d’s handiwork” and the crowning glory of creation, he became somewhat proud. The large aleph in Adam’s name indicates his self-importance, which led to his downfall in the sin of the tree of knowledge.

In contrast, Moses was also aware of his superior qualities as the greatest prophet to ever live, through whom the Torah was communicated to this world for perpetuity. But, rather than cause him conceit, this awareness brought him humility. Moses recognized that his impressive capabilities were granted to him as a gift from G‑d. Accordingly, he felt no conceit, but a pressing sense of responsibility. Thus, when Moses recorded in the Torah that G‑d called to him, he wrote the word vayikra with a small aleph.

Adam and Moses were both great men, aware of their greatness. But in Adam this sense of self-worth caused his disgrace, whereas in Moses it evoked humility and further greatness.

True humility and a productive self-image do not come from denying one’s talents, but rather from acknowledging that they are merely a bequest from Above, providing a channel through which to exert the greatest effort in accomplishing His will.

The most empowering self-image that you can give your child is the knowledge that she is a part of something much greater than herself. She is a creation of G‑d, who has great expectations from her. It is not the talents that she is born with that matter, but what she makes of them.

The lesson of the aleph is: Teach your child his greatness. Show him his infinite potential, his vast talents and his special capabilities.

But at the same time, clarify to your child that these are gifts endowed to him by G‑d, who desires that he utilize his unique talents to better our world—in a way that he, and only he, can.

Help your child experience her largeness, but at the same time, let her feel her smallness. Realizing her responsibility and the significance of her personal attainments will cause her to continually strive to reach ever higher.