This Meta post comes out of Erica's request for discussion on this question ("How should one handle a teen runaway who has shown up with a tale of woe?").

It seems to me that most questions on this site pose a problem, and then answers present a variety of ways the problem might be productively handled. Some approaches may work better than others. Good answers might have good reasons or backup on why they might or might not be the best way to handle a situation.

Here are some other example questions from the Related list on that one:

  • How should a stepfather respond to “You are not my Father!”?
  • As a parent, how should I react to someone asking me for permission for Prom?
  • 12 year old with major tantrums that I have no idea how to control help needed
  • How to deal with a teenager who wants his parents to buy him everything his friends have?
  • How to deal with a teenage daughter who refuses to dress modestly
  • Dealing with teens and pornography?
  • Teen secretly playing video games when should be doing homework
  • What should we do when our 15 year old wants sex with his 13 year old girlfriend?
  • How do you handle the boomerang effect with Teens?

Even when looking at the list of highest voted questions, I see similar sorts of questions (this is unfiltered sort-by-vote as of the question posting):

  • I am 21 and I am terrified beyond belief of my father
  • How to comfort my dad?
  • How can you deal with tantrums without spanking?
  • My 13-year-old son made a foolish and wasteful donation. How can I teach him he was wrong?
  • How can I prevent my 8-year-old from spending time with his bad friend?
  • Why would you lie to your children about Santa?
  • Impact on kids NOT having TV?
  • Is having a sibling better for a child?
  • Should you let a toddler win?
  • My 2.5 years old daughter asks to learn to read
  • How should I handle a little boy who likes girls' toys?
  • What are some strategies for raising a bilingual child?
  • Is bribing children with cash incentives a good idea?
  • Can “The Giving Tree” be explained in a way that isn't an unhealthy lesson?
  • Programming with a baby

What are the limits on asking questions that could have multiple different valid answers that have primarily subjective factors distinguishing between them? Why are the listed questions above within those limits, on-topic, and a fit for this site, while this one is not?

  • 1
    This is only an observation: Comparing questions is not a reliable way to evaluate their topicality for any SE site, because changes occur over time as sites are redefined and communities change. Sites in their early stages commonly accept questions which they later close quickly. Rather than asking why a question is closed compared to other questions, I think a better approach is to make a case based on site guidelines and meta discussions (which is how I try to make my decisions.) I do appreciate that you've asked a meta question and hope it's resolved. It's an interesting question. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 19:57
  • Maybe comparing against just one other question, that is more sensitive to change. But I'm comparing to a large set, including all the top-voted questions on the site. And, this is a meta question that could be used later for the citations you seek.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 19:58
  • I understand and appreciate the effort that you put into asking the question. As I said, I hope we get some good advice from the community. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 20:00
  • I also suggest providing an answer (e.g. "I feel that this is on-topic because of") in addition to asking the question. I understand this may seem picky and unfair, but I really do want to see community discussion and input -- and you're part of the community :)
    – Acire
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 22:10
  • @Erica it doesn't feel that way. I do NOT get the sense that I'm able to ask a question in a manner that is acceptable in this community, even when I've done my best to try to pick something that seems to fit in with the pattern of questions I observe on this particular site. I believe I can find other communities where I am more welcome and successful in writing questions that fit in the community, so it's not a huge disappointment if this isn't one of them, but I think Parenting could use some clarity on this meta question because it's a bit different than other SE sites in this respect.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 13:56

3 Answers 3


I believe there are multiple problems with your question that keep it from being a good question.

First, it isn't really self contained. At the time it was closed (and still to some degree, now) not all the context and details of the question are in the question. Part of Stack Exchange's philosophy is that questions aren't only to help you, but to help any future visitors as well. As such, we have to be concerned that links will one day die. If your question doesn't make sense or is missing critical details if links were to stop working right now, your question needs improvement. Any and all those details should be edited into the question so it can stand on it's own. While I haven't checked your links to see if any of that information is relevant, your question reads like that information is important, especially given the somewhat vague nature of your question.

Secondly, that vagueness is a problem too. When you leave certain details out, it allows (and sometimes demands) that readers fill them in for themselves. In your question you ask about what to do with a teen who shows up and tells you a sad story about their home life. That leaves a lot to the imagination. Teen could be anything from 13 to 19 (I know you gave 15 as an example, but because it was only given as an example, any of the above ages are valid interpretations). How you handle a 13 year old in this situation is different from handling a 19 year old. On the subject of a "bad" home life, what does "bad" mean? Does it mean "I don't get along with my family" or "I am being physically/emotionally/sexually abused" or something else? One of those warrants calling the cops or child services. The other entails calling a family counselor or telling someone to toughen up. Third, what does this child want from you? To borrow your phone? Sanctuary? Adoption and financial support? Again, the answers drastically change the question and the answers. This is a question where the details matter. As such, failing to provide them makes the question too broad to really be answered well.

Third, I'm not sure this is even a parenting question. Your question is about a person who comes to you, explains why they need something then asks for help. This time it happens to be a child who you have no relationship to. It happens plenty of times when someone comes to my door wanting to sell me new windows for my house or overpriced, delicious cookies (dang Girl Scouts). It wouldn't be appropriate to ask here about how to deal with the window salesman, because there is no parent-child or family dynamic involved. Just because a someone in the situation is a child doesn't automatically make something on-topic here. In the help center we explicitly state that we do not accept questions that are

generic and universal questions that are lazily worded "... for kids".

which is kind of how this comes off. If the child happened to be one of your kids friends or a niece or something where that family relationship plays a part, you would be much better off and the question could be on-topic. (Ex: How do I deal with my kid's best friend coming to us alleging abuse at home? How do I help my child understand this and help her help her friend?)

If you can edit your question to address these issues, it could be a good and interesting question. But as it stands now, it isn't a good fit for our format.

  • "Part of Stack Exchange's philosophy is that questions aren't only to help you, but to help any future visitors as well." Doesn't that mean that the question should be more useful than one specific situation where all the details perfectly match? I thought I had captured the key details in the question itself. I've edited a bit more to try to clarify the request and age issues, but I think this is considerably different than handling a windows salesman.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 19:24
  • 2
    @WBT To be useful to others doesn't mean that every detail has to match. For example, if your question was constrained to being a 15 year old who was being abused and wanted a place to live, that gives the answers and the readers valuable context. So if I had a 17 year old show up in the same situation, I could read the answers to get ideas and then adjust based on my circumstances. The way your question was worded before was in broad generalities. And any answers would either have made many assumptions or had to talk in the same broad generalities. (cont.)
    – Becuzz
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 20:52
  • @WBT (cont) If assumptions were made, then answers would have to state those assumptions to be useful (so people could know where to adjust). If the assumptions aren't stated, then future readers can't evaluate whether the advice is good or applicable at all. If the answers speak in generalities, they aren't going to be particularly helpful because they are going to come down to "it depends on...."
    – Becuzz
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 20:52
  • What's wrong with answers that state their assumptions?
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 2:21
  • 1
    I think it's more a problem with how many assumptions an answer would need to make in order to narrow its focus and not attempt to address all possible outcomes and variables.
    – Acire
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 10:27
  • 2
    @Becuzz I like how you've detailed the issue of being self-contained. I think it's a good practice to always assume that any given reader will not click any of my links, and phrase my questions in light of this assumption. Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 17:01

Hypothetical problems aren't de facto unwelcome if the OP sticks around to clarify and discuss, although plausible hypothetical problems are strongly preferred.

Subjective problems aren't automatically disallowed, as long as they can be focused and answers can be restricted to include supporting evidence ("you should do [this] because [research/experience reasons]"); you have documented a number of subjective Questions. Parenting being parenting, there are always going to be opinions and emotions involved, and it's much harder to have a "right" answer.

My stance in this case is not necessarily just that the Question is too subjective, but that it's subjective and open to interpretation and also tangential to parenting.

Ultimately, this site's questions should all be related to issues associated with a parenting role. That can be parents, step-parents, adopted parents, grandparents, nannies, even in some case teachers, as long as there is "parenting" going on. We also accept questions from children (over 13, per SE rules) about how to deal with their parents. But I'm struggling to fit "a stranger has shown up on my doorstep seeking help" into one of those categories -- what sort of "parenting role" would I have in this situation?

We've also allowed questions from non-parents, but a key hurdle is always can it help another site visitor, who is a parent or does it contradict somebody else's parenting. Teachers, grandparents, co-parenting after divorce -- there are plenty of situations that relate to parenting a child when there is at least one other parental figure that needs to be involved and respected. However, one thing they all have in common is a pre-existing relationship or parenting role.

If a strange teenager shows up on my doorstep, I have no pre-existing parenting role with that child. I'm not likely to "parent" them, not in the same way I would with children that I'm responsible for (biological, step, adopted, or foster). My intervention is likely to be more of a mentor or friend, helping navigate whatever challenge and problem brought them to my house in desperation. I wouldn't be approaching the issue with the same sense of responsibility and commitment.

It is an interesting philosophical question to consider: to what lengths would I be willing to go to be part of that metaphorical "village" that is required to raise a child? I'm willing to accept that I'm wrong and my interpretation of Parenting's scope is broad and can accommodate this, and I appreciate that you brought it up on Meta for discussion. I look forward to reading discussion and alternative perspectives.

  • What sort of "parenting role" would I have in this situation? The kid basically wants you to take the role of his new parent, and discounts (to/below zero) the relationship with his previous parents, if they were even present. Clearly that's an issue with a parenting relationship. His existing parents (or those who would be in that role if it were their kid) probably have some perspective on this, and if they don't care there are probably other parents out there who would.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 19:37
  • That's a clarification that could turn this into something concrete and answerable. I'd suggest that it may need to venture into a partial answer (e.g. "I'm open to the idea") in order to ask about the challenges and obstacles (e.g. "What problems do I need to be aware of and what steps should be taken to make sure this is legal and all parties are happy and protected?")
    – Acire
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 19:40

When I asked you "Is this based on an actual problem that you've faced?" you responded "It is based on a real life situation. Many more details than are needed for the core question can be found in the This American Life link Transcript here, see Act 1." From this, I see 3 possible scenarios:

  1. You are asking a hypothetical question that you thought of after listening to a radio program.

    If this is the case, then your question is probably not on topic for this site. From the Help Center, under What types of questions should I avoid asking?:

    You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

    To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where…

    • you are asking an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”

    I don't believe the issue has to do with subjectivity, as Parenting is one of the most (if not the most) subjective sites in the Stack Exchange Network. Rather, it's about practicality: this site exists to solve actual problems experienced by our users.

  2. You are asking about an actual problem that you've faced.

    If this is the case, it might be best if you remove the reference to the This American Life episode entirely, and provide details about your own actual situation instead. From the Help Center, under How do I ask a good question?:

    Be specific

    If you ask a vague question, you’ll get a vague answer. But if you give us details and context, we can provide a useful answer.

    The comments on your question have requested a variety of details be added to the question (I've extrapolated a couple of them into more distinct questions):

    • Who are you, in relation to the runaway?
      You answered: a complete stranger.
    • Where does this situation take place (e.g. country, state/province/territory)?
      This information will enable us to consider any legality issues we may be aware of in our answers.
    • How old is the runaway?
      You say "e.g. 15" in your question - this implies that you picked 15 as a hypothetical age. If you know the runaways age, give it, or give us your best guess; this will help clarify.
    • Who are you?
      From Erica's comment: telling us something about your personal time and financial availability, whether you've got kids or not, and other details may help rule out some potential answers that would be impractical for you.
    • What is the substance of the youth's "tale of woe"?
      Possible answers will be very different, depending on whether the tale is one of neglect, domestic violence, financial hardship, social/psychological problems such as depression, medical issues...
    • What research, if any, did you do before asking your question here? Or, what actions, if any, have you already considered taking, and are there any actions you've already ruled out?
  3. You are directly involved in the actual situation that the This American Life episode is about.

    If this is the case, you should say so. Or, if you do not wish to reveal this fact, then you should remove the reference and add details as with #2.

You mentioned that you don't want to add too many details to make the question too specific. I appreciate this, as we do prefer questions that can help more than one person. But when you get comments asking for more details, it may be an indication that you've gone too far in the other direction. The best questions fall in between the extremes of too detailed (limited applicability) and too broad (too many possible answers, or answers would have to be so long as to be less helpful).

The community is pretty good at identifying the right details to remove from a question that's too specific, and this can even be done after the answers come in. But when a question is too broad, only the OP can provide the missing details, because answers need to be helpful to the asker first. For an answer, being useful to others who find the question later is important, but is ultimately a close second place to being helpful to the OP.

  • So are you saying that #1 is off-topic, #2 is on-topic, and #3 is a special case of #2? This response sparks a discussion at meta.parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/1032/…. Thanks for sharing your perspectives.
    – WBT
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 20:08
  • In the context of your runaway question, yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. I'm working on an answer on your new meta question which will go into a bit more depth about situations where hypothetical doesn't automatically mean off-topic, but if my #1 describes your question, then I believe it's absolutely off-topic for Parenting.SE. Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 20:59

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