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What is a WordPress Child Theme, Pros/Cons and How to use a Child Theme

One of the main features of WordPress is to change a website’s appearance with a couple clicks of the mouse. After you install a theme, you can switch back and forth as often as you like. However, child themes let you make modifications without altering the primary file.

Think of it like having a working copy without creating all of the files from scratch.

Using a child theme in WordPress gives you the ability to make modifications and keep them separated from the parent. As you can imagine, this has quite a few benefits for those who like to customize theme files.

Today, I’m going to give you some insight into the child theme and why you should use it if you plan on making modifications.

Advantages of Using a Child Theme

For many developers, the pros of using a child theme outweigh the cons. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities this practice gives you.

Keeping Changes After Updates

One of the biggest problems with modifying a theme is when updates occur. Most of the time, these updates will erase any changes you make. This means you’ll have to code them all over again. Using a child theme protects your coding from such updates.

For instance, let’s say you want to modify the spacing of a theme’s subheader. Using CSS, you can make these changes directly in the theme. If that parent theme experiences an update later on, your changes will most likely be removed when the new CSS file is added to your website from the developer.

Using a child theme keeps its CSS from being removed. Which means you’ll still benefit from the update, but your changes will still remain.

Keeping Original Safe

Another problem some developers have is accidentally damaging a theme beyond repair. Because you’re using a child theme’s style.css file to make changes to the site, you won’t have to worry about permanently marring the theme.

Although you can simply reinstall the original to revert after damages, it’s simply easier and faster to use child themes.

No FTP Required

File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, is a common method in which website developers make adjustments. Using tools like FileZilla gives you control over the site’s files. However, you don’t need to invest a lot of time using FTP when modifying a child’s theme.

In reality, all you would need to do is create the file from cPanel’s File Manager and the rest can be done directly in WordPress. This limits how often you need to dig into the root of your site.

Faster Development

Using a child theme gives you a platform to make development much faster. Instead of coding everything from scratch, you use the parent as a backbone and simply make changes as you see fit.

Coding an entire WordPress theme can take a great deal of time. Using a child theme lets you make changes as you go, which makes overall development more efficient and cost-effective.

Creating Similar Websites

Some companies want to keep certain visual aspects the same across multiple domains. Copying and pasting the child’s files is just a quick and easy way to make this happen while taking up less time.

Depending on the nature of the changes, it may even be possible to use the same child CSS file to modify multiple themes on several websites at once. Things like color changes, logos, icons and more are often easily interchangeable among most WordPress themes.

Errors can happen when someone codes an entire theme from scratch. This could lead to a faulty website and a lack of functionality. By using a working and popular theme as your parent, you can ensure the site is constantly updated.

Keeping files updated is a vital component of website security. Developers who create popular themes often deploy updates to make sure they stay safe. In other words, you won’t have to worry about cleaning code or patching exploits as the developer will do that for you.

Disadvantages of Using a Child Theme

As good as a child theme might sound, there are some problems that might arise. While some of these are less frequent than others, you should know full well what you’ll get yourself into.

Possible Slower Site Speed

Using child themes often results in the site making a call to another file. Depending on the extent of your changes, this could decrease the performance of your site. However, many changes are minuscule and may go unnoticed by visitors and search engines in terms of site speed.

Requiring Knowledge of Theme Files

When using a child theme, you’ll need to have a good understanding about how the original theme operates. Not all developers are the same, which means you’ll need to know what files are controlling different aspects of the site.

Dealing with Too Many Features and Options

Some of the more extensive themes come pre-loaded with a wide variety of features and options. Usually, these themes are created to reduce the amount of coding a website owner has to do to customize the appearance. Too many of these have potential for being confusing, so you’ll need to pay attention to those features and options.

Abandoned Parent

Remember what I said about keeping files updated? Sometimes developers abandon projects especially if the theme is no longer a popular title. This means you won’t receive updates and you may use a theme riddled with exploits and security holes. Of course, this is true no matter if you use a child theme or not.

Always use the backbone of a theme that is current and routinely updated.

How to Create a Child Theme

In this article, I’m going to go over some of the basics of how to create a child theme in WordPress. It’s a relatively easy process, and doesn’t require a great deal of programming skill.

Set Up Your Child Folder

You’ll need access to the root folder of your WordPress website. This is where FTP programs come into play. However, I’m going to use cPanel to access the site’s files.

Go to cPanel and click, “File Manager.”

File Manager

Access your site’s root folder by clicking, “public_html.”

Click Public HTML

Click into the “wp-content” directory of your site.

WP Content

Click into the “themes” directory.

Themes Directory

Click the “+ Folder” option from the top tool bar.

Add Folder

Title it something you’ll recognize and click “Create New Folder.” I would suggest using the parent’s name followed by “child.” This will make it easier to identify later on. In this example, I am using “twentyfifteen” as the parent, so I would name it “twentyfifteenchild.”

Create New Folder

Set Up the style.css File

Go into the folder you created and click, “+ File.”

Create File

Title the file style.css and click “Create New File.”

Style Save

Now, here is where you’ll need to pay close attention. Edit this new file and add the following:

/*
Theme Name: My Child Theme
Theme URI: http://www.yourwebsite.com/
Description: A Twenty Fifteen child theme
Author: Your Name
Author URI: http://www.yourwebsite.com
Template: twentyfifteen
Version: 1.0.0
*/

@import url(“../twentyfifteen/style.css”);

Take a look at the Theme URI and Author URI. Use your website in these areas.

The “@import” command at the bottom tells WordPress where to pull the original CSS file.

When you’re done, click the “Save Changes” button on the file.

Save Changes

Activate the Child Theme

Go to the Themes area in WordPress. You’ll see a blank entry for “My Child Theme.” This will actually show the name of anything you put into the above code for “Theme Name.”

Hover your mouse over the theme and click “Activate.”

Activate

WordPress will now use the parent’s files and the child’s CSS. Now, what about making modifications or changes?

Go to the “Editor” option under Appearance in the left column of WordPress.

Click Editor

By default, WordPress will show the only file listed in your child theme folder. Here, you can make any adjustments and it will override the parent’s information. For instance, you can add the coding to change the background color of the theme and it will override the parent’s background coding.

After making changes, click the “Update File” button to save.

Update File

Customize Your WordPress Site

This is but one of the many ways you can customize your WordPress hosted website without knowing a lot of coding. This is perhaps one of the safest ways to make sure your changes are protected and usable even if a theme is updated. Get more out of your site by creating a unique look and feel…even if you’re using a popular theme.

What kind of ways have you customized your website? How often do you check to make sure your themes and plugins are updated?

Author: Alex G.

Updated on September 5, 2017

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