I feel that Parenting is not the 'black sheep' of Stack Exchange sites; rather, it's one of a few sites that is sort of an experiment in 'Can the Stack Exchange platform work for a topic that isn't black or white'. It's perfectly acceptable to have questions that cannot be definitively answered: almost nothing in parenting can, other than "are my kids awesome", which they clearly are.
We're not Yahoo Answers. That's an overreaction; that site is nearly unmoderated and hopelessly disorganized. But, there is nonetheless a good bit of useful discussion topic in this: specifically, how do we improve how we handle subjective questions, particularly advice questions, as these are going to be both our most difficult to have a clear guiding line on, and our least experienced users will often come in asking them.
What is important is to have a clear idea as a community what is acceptable as a question (and as answers). This is somewhat discussed in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective, where the original Parenting site (Moms4Moms, back in SE 1.0 days) is mentioned explicitly:
Moms4mom was an early Stack Exchange 1.0 case study in subjectivity. The owners knew from the outset that the topic of parenting was inherently and deeply subjective, a fundamentally bad fit to our engine. Parenting is one of the most subjective subjects I can imagine; every child is different, every parent is different, and whole cultures are wildly different in how they approach child rearing. After all, who can say for certain what order one should watch the Star Wars (saga) with your children for the first time?
The folks at Moms4mom owned up to the subjective issue and came up with a set of principles to create useful subjective discussions on parenting: the Back It Up! Principle. Back It Up! means that your answers must be based on either:
- Something that happened to you personally
- Something you can back up with a reference
They talk about how “opinion, by itself, is noise.” They’re not saying that subjective opinions are to be avoided; they’re attempting to mold and shape their inherently subjective Q&A into something constructive, informative and helpful. As it turns out, there is an entire field of subjective “expertise” that has the hallmarks of making great Q&A sites:
What we have to do is have a very good, concrete idea of what's okay here and what's not, and stick to that. I do agree that we've gotten away from that recently; not anyone's fault, just that we've had a pretty large turnover in mods and in people recently such that we have a very different set of opinions now. Going through close review earlier today I noticed three different questions, each of which had basically a 50/50 split between leave open/close, with 2+ votes for each. That never happens on StackOverflow, because it's very obvious what's opinion based and what's not. But here, if we don't have a cohesive idea of what's okay, we end up with questions where we disagree.
This probably could be a different question entirely and answer, but I'll start off with what my feelings are here.
On topic advice questions are:
- Questions about how to do some concrete parenting task. How to potty train. How to properly diaper. How to clip nails.
- Questions about how to do a particular approach to a (less concrete) parenting task. How to best/better implement a particular method for discipline. How to teach a child to read using the Phonics method. These questions would be off topic in 1. - "How do I teach my child to read" is too broad and opinion based, not to mention "How do I discipline my child" - but they're specific enough for 2.
- Questions asking advice for improving how a parent does a particular even less concrete task. "My child is out of control, how do I fix it?" is too broad, but "My child is out of control at bedtime. I've been working on helping him calm down before bed by using play-dough as a calming activity, but it's not working as well as I'd hoped; what else can I do that will help him calm down?" is fine, because it's specific enough to be given a good answer.
The basic gist here is that advice questions must be either concrete or specific, one of the two. The more concrete the topic, the less specific it needs to be; the less concrete the topic, the more specific it needs to be. It's probably a good idea to come up with a list of ten or fifteen actual questions or well written example questions that are 'good' and 'bad', and put that in a question on the site for people to be pointed to.
Further, all of those are specific examples from a person's personal life. That's very important in my opinion in Parenting. I think it's perfectly okay to have non-personal questions when they're very good and very specific, but they should be held to a much higher standard.
Why is that? Not only because it's how we avoid having discussion questions, but because a question that is not from personal experience is by its nature less specific. You can't ask specific followups if someone asks "I don't have a baby, but if I did, how could I help it sleep better at night if it's waking up all the time?" There's just no way to get information that doesn't exist, but would otherwise be helpful to answer the question by making it more specific.
Some things that tell me a question is not appropriate for this site at first glance:
- Starting a question with "I read in a magazine", and not ultimately focusing the question to personal experience. It's okay to ask "Ms. said in an article that my baby should be able to walk by eight months, but my baby is just lying and looking still. Is she behind?" because it ultimately gets back to the specific experience and question, and the article is just giving some background. But most questions that start this way are discussion oriented; "I saw something interesting and want to talk about it". I hold these up to a higher bar. If they're posted, like the Narcissist Parent question, we need to have a clear guidance on how to explicitly fix them and to help the user get to the question they really want to ask, if there is a non-discussion oriented question in there. Sometimes there isn't, and some users won't like that; but when there is, we need to help them get to the right place.
- Questions focusing on advice for adult or nearly-adult children dealing with their parents, unrelated to parenting issues specifically. I think these should mostly be off topic; these are adult relationship issues, not parenting issues. They're related to parenting sort of tangentially, but it's just hard to fix them down to specifics that are really likely for parenting experts to have expertise in (remember the picture above?). If it's a 13 or 14 year old I'm good with it, but a 18 or 20 year old, most of those questions are just a bit far from our regular area of expertise to be good questions here. (This one might need to be its own own question, as it's something we've had a lot of back and forth on in the past.) It's too bad Relationships didn't work out, as that would simplify things very much for us here; but that doesn't mean we should by default become Relationships.SE as well.
- Advice about "Which is best", when is something is not concrete, and without specific criteria. "Which method is best to teach my kids to read" is not very good (as above) because there are lots of methods, and this will just be a list/discussion question. "My child has mild autism and dyslexia; which method is recommended for helping him learn to read" is fine, because it's specific enough with the reasons why you might choose one method over the other.
- Questions that are a dump of a situation with "What do I do?" or "I'm lost, please help". We need to put these on hold immediately, and point the author to good examples of how to make their question specific enough and organized such that they can get good help. These are where LCIII is probably starting to see Yahoo Answers in our questions; while I think that is an overreaction, it is where our site starts to look like it's a bit overgrown with weeds sometimes, particularly when they hit Hot Questions. Give the users tools to fix these questions, and quickly move to put them on hold so they do fix them. Leaving them open long enough to attract answers gives the users no incentive to improve them.
That brings up a final point. Those of us who are experienced enough to be reading this: Please do not answer a question that needs significant improvement. Even if it's interesting or the person needs help desperately or it's an easy quick answer. If the question isn't a good question, Vote to Close and help them get it to a good question in comments. Answering a question means you think it's a good question, and encourages more questions like it, as they clearly get results.
I'm not saying that we should punish posters for bad questions; on the contrary, while they might get a decent answer from a bad question, on the whole they will usually get better answers from better questions, and other posters in the future will not see the bad question as a model to follow. And of course, if it needs small changes, just make those and feel free to answer; this is really meant for those 'big issue' questions where it needs a lot of work to be a good question.