I commented on a poorly asked question today.

From reading some of the askers other posts I realised they were in their early teens, but their profile didn't show their age.

I realised then that I would have been much more patient with a very young user than an adult.

Now, I can see why profile details would be hidden for a young user, but is that the case, or are the details just not filled in.

Also, now that I've thought of it a bit more . . .

Should it matter?
When prompting users to give more details so we can better answer the question, should we just assume they're adults?
Or should we try to show everyone the same patience we would a child, even though you strongly suspect it's a time-wasting-grown-assed adult.?

  • 6
    A/S/L should be the first line of feedback if its not provided. I'd also like to make it so that SO steers me towards users with similar taste in movies and music, and would prefer to receive gifts from my amazon wishlist instead of upvotes.
    – kekekela
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:14
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    I downvoted because I disagree with the suggestion ("Should it matter?"), but I think it's a good question to ask.
    – JNK
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:22
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    For gaming.stackexchange.com it's probably the inverse
    – Chris S
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:35
  • I don't know whether I should downvote you for what you said or upvote you for being sarcastic.
    – Pops
    Oct 10, 2011 at 16:23
  • 1
    Overall it's better to be patient.. polite. But be fair too. If the question is bad, question is bad. We aren't a counseling service. Oct 10, 2011 at 18:33

8 Answers 8


The first line of the FAQ is:

Stack Overflow is for professional and enthusiast programmers

To me, this indicates that SO is a place for adults. Whether you are biologically an adult or not is irrelevant, but everyone will be TREATED as a grownup.

In short, I treat everyone like they are a professional developer. If they ask a question that shows lack of insight, or no research I tell them so.

If they react negatively to my feedback that's not my problem. I see young people here the same as a young teen in college - if they can hang, terrific! If not, it's not a problem with the material, and we shouldn't cater to them.

If you want the advice of professionals, you need to abide by their rules.

  • 4
    +1: +1 again of I could for "If you want the advice of professionals, you need to abide by their rules." Sums things up quite nicely Oct 10, 2011 at 15:16
  • Totally agree, but then what meaning does "enthusiast" bear?
    – user159834
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:18
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    @WesleyMurch - someone who is serious about programming. If you go to an auto show and know a lot about engines, you can talk with the pros on a similar level. If you say "What's a cylinder?" then you probably wouldn't be an enthusiast. If you show no effort in research on your own, you aren't very enthusiastic either.
    – JNK
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:22
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    Well said. There are quite a few "What's a cylinder?" questions out there however that seem to be met with a barrage of answers, while some are closed and downvoted. I guess the key is showing your effort to understand it, but perhaps that is actually off topic.
    – user159834
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:27
  • @WesleyMurch - that's more an issue with the answerers than the askers. A lot of people see super easy questions and post an answer for quick and easy rep.
    – JNK
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:30
  • IMHO some of the most enthusiastic programmers can be kids. I'd safely say a lot of us here have been programming since we were pre-teens and I, for one, was a very enthusiastic programmer at that age. Oct 11, 2011 at 2:15
  • @JohnClearZ - And if you had a chance, as a pre-teen, to ask a bunch of professional programmers a question, you would hopefully not expect them to treat you like a child.
    – JNK
    Oct 11, 2011 at 2:25

There is no age information contained in that profile. If there had been, it would be displayed. But, regardless…

No, it shouldn't really matter. As always, our mantra is be nice, but Stack Exchange has always been about what is being asked more so than who is asking it.

If a question can be improved, you should always try to do so, whether is it editing it for content or asking for clarification. There is nothing to be gained by letting poor content lie under the premise, "oh, they probably just don't know any better."

  • " . . There is nothing to be gained by letting poor content lie . . ." That's not the issue (I still think of Joels original criteria for questions "Does this question make the internet a better place" :). The question is more on the lines of "Is there a basic level of competency & maturity we should assume of askers if there is no other indicator to suggest their competency and maturity?" Oct 10, 2011 at 15:15

No one should get "special treatment" or "talked down to" simply because of their age, but if you believe this is an indication of skill - that may be another matter which applies to all ages.


As far as answers go: You can usually (not always) tell roughly what someone's skill level is just by reading the post, and target your responses to the perceived comprehension ability so that it can be useful to OP, but include the more complicated details for other users, or for when OP "catches up".

This is not much different than posts where OP claims to be a "noob", sometimes you have to gear your answers towards the mindset of someone who is still learning the basics in order for them to understand it, even if the question itself involves something perhaps beyond their ability. There are plenty of other "noobs" out there who will benefit from it.


Immaturity at any age level should be dealt with the same way on SO. We're here to talk about programming, not teach life lessons on etiquette. If you personally want to, that's fine - but I would certainly not suggest it as a general guideline for all users to follow.

  • 2
    It's not so much about skill, and I don't plan on talking down to anyone. It's about life experience and maturity. It's reasonable to expect most (possibly +95%) SO users have a couple of years 3rd level education and/or a couple of years work experience. You can't ask a 13 year old kid to react well when a 40 year old developer says "This question doesn't make sense, go clean it up". The kid may need to be told why it doesn't make sense. Personally I'm willing to take the time and explain that to a kid, but I'm not if it's a foul tempered 35 year old that should know better. Oct 10, 2011 at 15:00
  • Personally I don't see a difference, you should try to be helpful no matter what or simply say nothing. If the user reacts in an immature way, age should not make a difference. You can replace "skill" with "comprehension" in my post and it may make more sense what I'm getting at. Age is not a perfect reflection of experience either, except yes: you can probably assume they don't have work experience. In any case, patience should depend on what you are getting back from OP, and rude comments usually cause more of the same on both ends.
    – user159834
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:04
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    Wesley: I have to say I disagree. If a 30 year old acts immaturely, then fine, I'm done with them. If a 13 year old act immaturely I'll tell them they're being immature, why they're behaviour is self defeating, and give them another chance. The difference is the first is knows better (or damn well should), the second may not know better and never will know better until someone explains it to them. Oct 10, 2011 at 15:10
  • I just checked your profile and saw you're 30 years old . . . honestly 30 just popped out of my head in the last comment, I wasn't have a go at you mate :) Oct 10, 2011 at 15:11
  • It appears we may agree to disagree so. Thanks. Oct 10, 2011 at 15:17

Should the age of the asker temper our answers?

It's nice if it does. It's perfectly all right to take age into consideration, and to treat a teen with much more patience than a thirty-something claiming to be a professional programmer. I personally will slam the latter with a comment if they can't be bothered to look in the damn manual; I'll be much more tolerant with a twelve-year-old.

However, nobody is obliged to treat young people differently. It's a professional community and JNK's quote catches it perfectly: If you want the advice of professionals, you need to abide by their rules.

If you don't add age information to your profile, you're going to be treated like an adult, and a minimum level of competence of maturity will be expected.

  • +1 - I agree that it's up to the individual, but the expectation is everyone is treated like an adult.
    – JNK
    Oct 10, 2011 at 21:00

It should matter...
When the question is: Explain Concatenative languages to me like I'm an 8 year old

Otherwise, no. You are not writing for the benefit of the asker. Not primarily. If your answer is only of use to him, then we might as well delete it once he's read it. The vast majority of the people reading your answer will be finding it via searches, and you have no way of knowing their age, experience, or level of understanding.

So ask for clarification until you're satisfied with the question or have lost patience, and then answer as clearly as possible. If the asker lacks sufficient background to properly ask the question or comprehend any reasonable answer, then politely suggest they may need to study or ask questions on more fundamental questions before tackling such advanced subjects.

The alternative - endless hand-holding - will burn you out eventually, regardless of whether the asker is young and inexperienced or simply lazy. Don't fall victim to this out of misplaced charity towards the young.

Worth noting also that there are some extremely smart kids on SO who need far less consideration than the majority of seasoned veterans...

  • Mmm, yeah. I don't think it's wrong to give a bit more of initial slack to a young person and tell them how things are done around here before burying them under a pile of downvotes for example. You're right of course re the endless hand-holding, and that if they lack basic knowledge, they need to go get that first.
    – Pekka
    Oct 10, 2011 at 23:42
  • There's nothing wrong with giving initial slack to whoever you want. If you want to give slack to young people (for whatever definition of "young" suits you), or old people (ditto...) or ESL people or parolees or mimes or the terminally ill or everyone whose name contains a 'k'... Then have at it. But you're doing it for your own purposes. The site tells you to "be nice", not "be extra nice to certain folk".
    – Shog9
    Oct 10, 2011 at 23:58

On reflection . . .

The choice isn't so much "Should I push for more content", but "How patient should I be?". I've left polite & helpful comments on other questions explaining at length why some extra datum is necessary for a question to be answered, and gotten sarcastic trollish comments in return.

My question here is more "How much patience should one show when someone - who you could assume should know better - doesn't seem to understand why they need to help you to help them?".

Do we assume a level of competency and go with that, or do we for want of a better term "feed the trolls".

I think - for me - the answer is, I don't have the patience to treat every asker as if they were a 13 year old kid. If it's obviously apparent, then - without talking down to them - I'll go out of my way to explain my self, where I may not do so for the average adult.

For the average adult - or if you've no DOB on your profile - I won't be rude or short, I'll be polite and helpful as I always am, but I'm not going to belabour a point that - I would personally judge - any normal self respecting adult should understand.

My two cents.

  • Changing my profile now to say I'm 9 years old so my bad questions don't get closed... Oops! There was a problem updating your profile: Birthday must be before 1998/10/10 Oh well...
    – user159834
    Oct 10, 2011 at 15:31
  • 2
    As a US company, SE must abide by COPPA, the law that says -- warning, oversimplification ahead -- you have to be at least 13 years old to make accounts on the Internets and whatnot. At least two users have already been suspended for being too young. @WesleyMurch
    – Pops
    Oct 10, 2011 at 16:28
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    I did see an 11 year old once (who was extremely rude, claimed to "know everything about PHP", and asked an awful question that was DV'd and closed). He was met with fair comments until the "stfu"'s came out, then was ignored. My point really was that nothing in my user card should affect responses to the way I behave or the content I post.
    – user159834
    Oct 10, 2011 at 16:33
  • @WesleyMurch, I just wanted to explain why your attempt to claim you were 9 failed. I wasn't arguing with you; in fact, I agree. Apologies for being unclear.
    – Pops
    Oct 10, 2011 at 20:43

Maybe it's because I taught programming, but I'm inclined to be patient, instructive, and non-judgemental, especially if the subject is one about which there is disagreement.

If someone is so immature as to be rude, that's another issue. I don't mind giving them a gentle reminder that this forum is for people to help each other.


I would be more considerate to a very young person too, but actually it shouldn't matter.

I'm a moderator for a Dutch Delphi forum and one of the most important rules there is te be nice when responding. If you can't be nice or you think a question is too simple, beneath your level or just plain stupid, don't answer it. Someone else may.

On SO it should be easier even to follow that rule, because you got the voting system (you can downvote stupid questions without answering them), and there are many more people to anwer those questions.

On the other hand, being nice can be hard. Some questions show so little effort and so little understanding. Questions that must have shown a hundreds of duplicates while they were typed. I have more than once answered a question about an area I knew little about by just pasting the title in Google and more or less pasting the first result as an answer. It often got upvoted or even accepted. That makes me wonder how the asker does his research and I can imagine why it is hard to be considerate with questions like this.

I do think that in these cases you can make a serious remark about that. I think a programmer should be able to ask the right questions and interpret information about related problems to apply it to their own. If someone fails at that, it may be educational to tell them. But even remarks like this can be made without bashing someone or getting really personal.

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