What is a Child Theme and Why You May Need One

What is a WordPress Child Theme and why you may need one for your website project

Part of the beauty of using WordPress for your website is how easy it is to get started, right out of the box. Sometimes, though, out of the box features may not do everything you need. You realize you need a bit more customization to your website than your current theme can handle.

Well, this is where Child Themes come in.

You know I try to not get too technical in these kinds of posts. I know you’re here to learn more about having a website. You don’t want to mess with programming, right?

Don’t Try this as Home, Kids

There are many great posts on the WordPress Codex and other sites on how to build a Child Theme. The topic is complex and time-consuming.

This post is more about the why than the details of how.

Despite being a big fan of DIY, I don’t recommend DIY Child Themes unless you are a skilled developer. Child Themes can get pretty technical. Newbies and non-techies should leave this one to the pros. I’ll spare you the cost of time, sanity, and pints of Cherry Garcia.

This doesn’t mean you should ignore the topic of Child Themes for your WordPress website. Your child theme carries your website farther than any out of the box theme ever will.

If you need to customize your WordPress Website, a Child theme may be your best option. Here's why.

Let me backtrack a bit for you.

What are Themes, Parent Themes, and Child Themes?

In case you didn’t know, WordPress calls layouts or templates “Themes”. I’m pretty sure most of you knew that, but some newbies might not.

WordPress.org makes a huge number of free themes available. These free themes work for pretty much any kind of website. There are themes that are perfect for food blogs, or for artist portfolio websites. There are free WordPress themes ideal for shopping cart websites.

Each theme doesn’t just make your site look a certain way. Themes enable your website to do things too. I’m talking about features like how your site changes on a mobile device versus a large desktop. Or how the menus behave. Or even more complicated behaviors too many to mention.

Most of this takes place in the functions file of them. This file contains super complicated coding most of the time.

So, your theme makes your website behave the way you want it.

Try This First: Using the Theme Customizer to Make Changes

Now, pretend you like how your website behaves, but you want to change some features about how it looks.

If it’s a well-made theme, you can explore a couple of options.

No matter how tech-adverse you might be, you might be able to customize your theme in the customizer. You’ll find this in your dashboard under Appearance → Customize. (As I demonstrate below :-))

Exactly what features you can change depends on the theme. Different developers put as many options as they want in their Themes. Some themes allow you to change everything imaginable. Others allow only basic changes.

The theme I am using above is a child theme I created from another theme, but between me and the parent theme creator, we put all of the options in there. Your results may vary unless I created it. 🙂

The Next Step: A Child Theme

If for some reason, you need to change more than what you can change in the customizer, the next step is a Child theme. This means, creating some new theme files but pointing back to the theme you like. That old theme will act as the parent theme.

Your new theme becomes the child theme. The child theme borrows the Functions and other useful features of the parent theme. This lets you keep the best, most complicated parts, of the theme.

Don’t Edit the Parent-Theme Files or You’ll Cry Later

Wait, you may be wondering, Can’t I make a few tweaks on the theme we’re using? That seems easier…

That does seem easier, but it’s a rookie mistake.

You see, WordPress keeps improving their platform. They adapt to the changing world of the internet, browsers, and so on. So the people who create themes publish updates from time to time.

If you were to edit your theme’s files, you’ll run into problems when that theme updates. With the update, all your changes would disappear. You’d be pulling your hair out and binge-watching Netflix, crying into a carton of ice cream.

Or at least I would. And have.

So, using a child theme means your website enjoys all the benefits of the updated theme without losing the changes you made. The update doesn’t change the child theme, only the parent theme.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel Unless You’re Bored or Rich

Artwork by Kimberly Eddy. Background Photo by Vera PhotoArt for Unsplash

You might be wondering what the point of making a child theme is. Why make a child theme instead of creating your own theme from scratch?

This is a great question.

The idea behind it is not to reinvent the wheel. By using a well-made theme as a parent theme, your child theme will have all the functions and basic layout features without as much work. If you’re hiring a web developer to create your website, a Child Theme saves you money by not taking as much of their time.