The beauty of WordPress, the part that makes me love it so much, is the ability to customize pretty much any piece of a theme to your heart’s content. The downside however, is if the appropriate steps aren't followed, you’re in for a world of headache and trouble down the road. This is where the role of WordPress child themes become important. While there are countless amazing WordPress themes that can be used straight out of the box without changing a thing, I still have made core changes to every single site I've developed for one reason or another. You may be thinking “Well, so what? What’s going to happen…?”
The Problem Is Down The Road
When an update for a theme is released, you always want to install and apply it. Not only does it include new features or bug fixes, but often security upgrades are included protecting your website from malicious attacks. But, what happens to the changes? By installing the updated version of the theme, it’s telling WordPress to style everything based on the theme as is. If any changes to files have been made, including the CSS for things as simple as color changes, every customization will be overwritten. Imagine having to completely redesign and configure a site with EVERY update!
Sounds scary and troublesome, doesn't it? Don’t worry, that is where a WordPress child theme comes in. A child theme, when taken down to brass tacks, is a copy of the essential files of a theme that can be edited and customized without ever losing any changes when the parent theme is updated.
Using a WordPress child theme can also save your skin if something goes wrong in your customization phase. You’ll never have to worry about ruining your theme in the event of coding errors, it can always be reverted back to the parent if things get too hairy.
The biggest problem I encounter when taking over a website built by other design firms or the client themselves is I've yet to see anyone use WordPress child themes. Whether you’re using a developer/designer or working on your site yourself, cutting out this step will only hurt you in the long run. So, if WordPress child themes are so amazing, why is it such a small percentage of WordPress users use it? Sometimes it’s because no one knows of their existence or perceived far too difficult to put together. Now that you’re in the know, we can talk about just how easy it really is to implement.
Plugins, Plugins, Plugins!
There are a ton of great plugins available to facilitate the creation of WordPress child themes with the most minimal effort, but my personal favorite is the Orbisius Child Theme Creator available as a free download from the WordPress plugin directory. It is really just as simple as installing, choosing the theme to copy, and letting the plugin do the rest. By default, it will create a blank copy of the header, footer, and style files for you to get creative with. You can also create copies of any other file manually through the Orbisius Theme Editor within the admin panel to go even further.
So go on, get fancy! Just remember that WordPress child themes should be an important part of your new WordPress installation.
For more information and complete documentation on child themes, please visit the WordPress.org Codex.