What is a WordPress child theme – a simple explanation

1 November 2016

So you have your WordPress website all sorted, and are pretty happy with the result. It looks great, and you’re starting to get comfortable making your own changes and adding blogs posts.

Then some smart Alec starts chiming on about a WordPress child theme and how you really should be using one, forecasting doom and gloom and the death of your website if you don’t.

Minor panic sets in because this all sounds way too complicated to sort out, and you have a growing to-do list which needs urgent attention.

So I’m here to quell your fears and explain exactly what a WordPress child theme is, so you can make an informed choice as to whether you need one or not.

So what is a WordPress child theme, in simple terms?

I like to think of child themes like clingfilm. They’re a thin layer that sits above the actual theme. In reality, they’re simply a set of files which inherit their functionality from the parent theme. But they’re separate, and this can be useful for reasons outlined below.

Why are child themes used?

So we all know that themes are updated on a regular basis, either to include additional functionality, or to close down loopholes which may make them vulnerable to hackers.

So, we want to keep our themes up to date to take advantage of new features, or to keep the theme secure.

However, if you have made any customisations to the core files of the theme (to change colours or layouts for example), or you have asked a developer to do some customisations on your behalf, if/when you upgrade the theme, these customisations could be lost.

These kind of customisations would possibly have been made in the Appearance > Editor of your site.

theme customisations

If you’re not sure, and you have had a designer working on the site for you, ask if they have made any customisations to the theme files.

What if I have only made changes within the theme options?

If you have used the themes custom css editor, or have used a css plugin to make changes to things like the colour scheme, spacing and layout, you should be fine to update your theme.

Changes to your theme options were probably make in an area which possibly looked a little like this

theme options

By the way, changing your theme options will look different depending on what theme you chose and what WordPress editor you’re using.

What if I’m just buying a theme – what should I look out for?

It’s good practice to always use a child theme, so if you’re just starting out, or you’re about to purchase a new theme, check that it ships with a child theme, and use that.

Once you have purchased your theme, install the parent theme first, and then install and activate the child theme. It will look exactly the same as the parent theme, but it’s just that layer of clingfilm which means that any customisations you make there, will be isolated to the child theme, and you can always fall back to the parent theme later if you need to at all.

How do I create my own child theme?

This article here from the great guys over at Elegant Themes (who create the Divi theme which I love) outlines how to create your own child theme, with screenshots. It’s worth a read if you’re wanting to create a child theme yourself from scratch: https://www.elegantthemes.com/blog/resources/wordpress-child-theme-tutorial.

However, for those of you who feel squeamish at the site of code, I would tend to give this kind of tutorial a wide berth, and simply find a freelancer to create one for you.

In summary

If you have a theme and you’re not sure what the extent of the customisations have been, it’s likely that someone else made them on your behalf, so the best thing would be to ask them.

If you’re using a WordPress theme out of the box, and haven’t made any customisations to the core files, you don’t need to worry about a child theme. However, for future revisions of your website, definitely use a child theme, so you can be sure that this isn’t an issue that you need to worry about.

And by the way, in my humble opinion, the safety of your website is more important than any aesthetic customisations that you may have made. A hacked site is no fun at all, so if in doubt, I’d go take a back up, and go ahead with the upgrades anyway.

Vicky Etherington

Vicky Etherington has been running her own online marketing agency since 2003, and in 2015 transitioned to working with coaches and therapists to teach them how to create their own client-attracting websites. 

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Posted in: Wordpress tips

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