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What Is a WordPress Child Theme? Pros, Cons, and More

Are you wondering what a WordPress child theme is and whether you should be using one?

WordPress child themes let users and developers customize their WordPress sites more quickly. However, they come with their own advantages and disadvantages that you may want to consider.

In this article, we’ll explain what a WordPress child theme is and help you decide whether or not you should be using one.

What is a WordPress Child Theme? Pros, Cons, and More

What Is a Child Theme in WordPress?

A child theme is a WordPress theme that inherits the functionality, features, and style of another WordPress theme, the parent theme. You can then customize the child theme without making any changes to the parent theme.

Creating a child theme can be as simple as creating a new folder containing two files, style.css and functions.php. They can also become quite complex and have just as many template files as the parent theme, and even more.

The first step in creating a child theme is to choose a good parent theme. You should aim to choose one that is close in appearance and functionality to your goals so that you only need to make a few changes.

You can use any WordPress theme as a parent theme, but some themes are more suitable than others. For example, theme frameworks make excellent parent themes. They include the core functions of a theme, but not the styling.

These theme frameworks allow designers and developers to easily create many different child themes that are styled differently without having to rewrite a lot of the same functions.

Genesis theme framework

Why Use a WordPress Child Theme?

Using a child theme is a fast and efficient way to customize your WordPress website. Designers and developers use them to speed up their development.

If you choose a good parent theme, then you can drastically reduce the time it takes to create a WordPress site. Theme frameworks make a good starting point because they offer lots of functionality and are easy to customize.

Child themes also make it easy to keep your themes up to date. This was a serious issue in the early days of WordPress.

Normally, when you update a WordPress theme, you lose all of your customizations. But when you use a child theme, your customizations are stored in the child theme and won’t be lost when you update the parent.

Theme updates

Pros and Cons of Using WordPress Child Themes

Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to using a WordPress child theme. Let’s take a look at the advantages first.

Advantages

  • Safe Updates: Because you never modify the parent theme, you can safely update it when a new version arrives. All of your customizations are saved in the child theme.
  • Easy to Extend: A child theme built on a powerful theme framework allows a great deal of flexibility without writing a lot of code. You only need to modify the template files and functions that you wish to customize.
  • Fallback Safe: When you create a complete theme you need to think about every possible scenario. When you don’t code for something in a child theme, then the parent theme’s functionality is available as the fallback option.

Disadvantages

  • Learning Curve: You need to invest time learning about the parent theme, especially when you’ve chosen a robust framework with its own hooks and filters. However, this disadvantage is temporary. Once you know the parent theme you’ll be able to create custom websites in a fraction of the time.
  • Dependence on Parent Theme: The parent theme’s developer may abandon the theme or drop a feature you need. However, reputable theme frameworks like Genesis have a stable business behind them, and most WordPress themes are open source so you can continue to use them even if they are abandoned.

The pros and cons of using a child theme will also depend on the theme you’re using as a parent theme, so let’s take a look at that next.

The Importance of Selecting a Good Parent Theme

We often hear from beginners who make the mistake of selecting a parent theme that doesn’t offer much functionality. They end up having to override most of the parent theme files.

That’s why it’s important to select the right theme from the start.

Let’s say you choose a parent theme and decide you don’t like the way the footer looks. So you create a new footer.php file. Then you decide you don’t like the way the header looks and create a new header.php file.

Template Files Used in a Theme

Before long it becomes clear that you shouldn’t be using that theme as a parent theme. Instead, you could use it as a starter theme that you turn into your own custom theme.

Another option would be to choose another theme that’s much closer to what you need, so you don’t have to make so many changes in your child theme.

Should You Use a WordPress Child Theme?

If you are a developer learning to create your own WordPress themes, then you can use a child theme to reduce your development time.

Developers need to streamline their workflow while creating quality themes. Creating a child theme will often help you accomplish that.

Many of the sites that we build are child themes of the Genesis Theme Framework. But in some cases, we do build a standalone custom WordPress theme, such as when a project is very complex or very simple.

If you are a user, then we recommend child themes only if you find yourself constantly adding new functions to your theme’s functions.php file or are constantly modifying its style.css file.

During a WordPress meetup talk, one of the members asked us the best solution for adding custom styles. They wondered whether it is better to use a child theme or a custom CSS plugin.

The answer to that depends on how savvy and comfortable you are with technology. It also depends on how many customizations you are making.

A custom CSS plugin works fine if you only modify the styles of a few elements. But if you find yourself changing the entire color scheme, for example, then you definitely should consider using a child theme.

Customize CSS

We hope this tutorial helped you learn what a WordPress child theme is, and whether or not creating a child theme is a good fit for you.

You may also want to learn how to choose the best web design software, or check out our list of must have plugins to grow your WordPress site.

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Reader Interactions

93 CommentsLeave a Reply

  1. Hey I have a question. Does making and activating a child theme affect (drop) SEO ranks of an already ranking website that is live?

    • It would depend on the specific changes but it should not affect your site’s SEO for the most part.

      Admin

  2. Hi, Great article on child themes. It’s exactly what I needed. Just one question? Am I right in thinking that you don’t have to install the child theme when you initially install the parent theme? That you only install it the instant you need to customize the function.php or parent theme template files?

  3. Question! When activating a parent theme and a child these, do I activate both themes in my dashboard? Or do I just activate the child theme and leave the parent theme deactivated?

    I ask because, if I activate both, will I be able to determine which one is the child theme within the dashboard?

    • You would want to activate the child theme and leave the parent theme deactivated. The child theme will use what it needs from the deactivated parent theme :)

      Admin

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