What Is A WordPress Child Theme & Do I Need One?

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Parent themes. Child themes. Premium themes. If you’ve looked into upgrading to a premium WordPress theme, chances are you have come across the term child theme.

However, when there’s so much to know and learn, it’s not surprising it can all be confusing. And when you’re making the move to pay for a premium theme, the last thing you want is to feel confused.

In this post, I am going to focus on using the Divi theme but many premium themes, including Avada and Studiopress’ Genesis theme, do recommend using a child theme.

What is a parent theme?

Before we can start talking about child themes, let’s talk about parent themes because you can’t have one without the other. A parent theme is a theme that gives you the functionality, features and style that you will use to build your website. It’s the overarching framework that’s used on your website.In order for a WordPress theme to be able to be a parent theme, and not just a standard theme, it needs to offer you the ability to edit its core functionality without modifying any core theme files. If that sounds like technical jargon to you, let me explain…

The core theme files are what tell your website to look and act in the way that you choose. For example, if you change the header font to be Amiri, the core theme files change to reflect that. Say you choose to have all your social media icons shown in your brand colours, the CSS you add will replace the core theme files. So, the more you customise a site, the more you change the core theme files.

Great! The theme allows me to make all these changes, so what’s the problem? You might be asking. Well, every time your theme updates and good premium themes update frequently to fix bugs, add more functionality and generally improve so that customers are getting value for money, the core theme files update.

That means that, let’s say your theme comes with core theme files that set you heading font to be Helvetica and you have changed it to be Amiri, every time the theme updates the font will be set back to Helvetica. So, all the customisation and hard work you’ve put into your blog gets totally undone with the click of an update button! How annoying / tear-inducing / alcohol requiring would that be?

What is a child theme?

Ok, ok, let’s get down to business. A child theme is a theme that inherits all its functionality, features and style from the parent theme but uses different core files which aren’t impacted by theme updates. So, again if you change your header font in a child theme core file when the parent theme core files update, no changes will be made to the customisations you have made in the child theme. What will happen though is that the child theme will inherit all the new and improved functionality that comes from the parent theme update – win-win!

In a nutshell, child themes keep customisations you make separate to the parent theme files allow you to update parent themes and take advantage of the improvements without losing anything.

Let’s take this website as an example. I use Elegant Themes’ Divi theme; a premium theme with awesome functionality (head over here to see why I love it). But, if I just installed that and ran with it, all the changes (for example my lovely branding by Laura, the custom archive pages, etc) would all be wiped every time I updated Divi. To avoid that, I use a child theme.

When do I need a child theme?

If you’re working with a premium WordPress theme and planning on making lots of changes – which to be honest everyone should so that their blog stands out from the crowd, you need a child theme. Why? So that you don’t lose all the work you have put into your blog and have to resort to copious amounts of wine and/or coffee to replicate it all (or throw your laptop in the bin).

Installing or creating a child theme should be the first thing you do having installed your parent theme.

What are the benefits of using a child theme?

Not only will a child theme prevent you from losing all your customisation, but they also enable you to get more creative. Most premium themes have a ton of child themes readily available (both free and paid). Like using a layout, these can be a great foundation for your blog and enable you to make use of functionality and styling you don’t necessarily know (or have time) to do. Think of them as a template, you can take the bits you like and customise them further. Browsing child themes can also be inspiring when your creative juices aren’t flowing!

Note: If you’re using the Divi theme, the license includes access to hundreds of pre-made templates that can be used in their entirety or as a base to build from. These are not the same as child themes and if you choose to upload one of their layouts, or a layout from anyone else, you will also need to use a child theme.

Do I need a parent and a child theme?

Yes. You cannot have one without the other. For example, if you installed the Divi theme and just used that without a child theme (why would you do that?), Divi is acting as a theme, not a parent them. But, as soon as you activate a child theme, Divi becomes a parent theme. This doesn’t mean you need to pay for both. You will need a license key for the parent theme but there are plenty of great free child themes to choose from. Under Dashboard > Appearance > Themes, you will find both the parent and child theme.

How do I get a child theme?

You can source both free and paid child themes for your theme from many places! There are literally thousands of Divi child themes, some of which can be found through The Design Space Co, Divi Lover and Elegant Marketplace. You can also use a plugin to generate your own child theme for free. Divi Child Theme by Divi4U is easy and simple to set up. Once you have installed and activated the plugin, just follow the step by step prompts and before you know it you’ll have your own personalised child theme so you can get building!

Note: Don’t be fooled into thinking that paying for a child theme gives you access to the parent theme too – you will always need to purchase a license for the parent theme from the developers.

If you’d like to dig deeper into child themes, this is a great resource, no matter what theme you use.

I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion around WordPress child themes.

Let me know, do you use a child theme?