Parent Themes & Child Themes

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.

I need to get this off my chest.

I update and maintain websites behind the scenes for several Australian web agencies and freelance web developers across the country. I’m the go-to-guy when things go wrong.

Many web development agencies will design your website starting with a WordPress theme. Sometimes they will write the theme themselves (the job of a real web-developer) but in most cases they will purchase tried-and-true, popular WordPress themes from somewhere like Themeforest. And then bash them into shape for a client.

Most of the top-selling premium themes have hundreds of pre-made layout which can be tweaked to suit the clients’ needs exactly. All this without having to know code. Some say that’s a travesty.

Divi and Avada

Elegant Themes’ Divi and Themeforest’s Avada give web developers pixel-level control over every element on a page.

You can change;

  • colours and fonts
  • add display and info boxes
  • add and tweak slideshows
  • adjust the size of headers
  • adjust the size and position of images or text
  • hide elements from mobile phones (say, a difficult to read slideshow)
  • add a slider, image or text which only shows on mobile devices

Etc. etc. etc.

If you like tweaking stuff, these big themes are great. I’ve worked with all of these big wordpress themes and they are absolutely fabulous. They come with great instructions and if you need support, I’d recommend adding 6 months to make it a year. You’ll pay around A$100 for the popular ones.

NB: Big themes are more like frameworks than usual themes. They allow pretty much any kind of layout and come with pre-made website templates. In the case of Divi, you can choose from sets of templates to cover all pages on your site.

WordPress and Theme Updates

Elegant Themes’ flagship WP theme is “Divi”. Divi and Avada jostle for the #1 most popular wordpress theme of all time. Divi is usually updated several times per month. All you have to do to keep up is hit the update button every time a new version comes out. Easy peasy.

You can control pretty much everything!

Web Companies and Child Themes

Down the Rabbit Hole…

This may come as a shock to you. Not all web companies code.

Wh-whuuuuut? You say.

The web company you bought your website from is often unaware of what extras a theme developer adds to their bloated theme each month. If they are using their own in-house theme (i.e. if they are coders) this isn’t an issue. In most cases, they employ 3rd party, popular themes like Avada. There’s nothing worng with that. But – and this is where the issues begin – a typical web company (or marketing firm) will temporarily hire a local (or in most cases an overseas) developer to make changes to the site.

So the developer creates a “Child Theme” and adds custom layo9ut code and other functionality according to what’s needed.

If it works, they go live. The customer is happy.

Changes are made on an ad-hoc basis throughout the year. If you are lucky enough to have someone like me working behind the scenes, your site will be regularly updated. All 3rd party plug-ins, WordPress itself, Security and the Parent Theme will also be updated. Most of the time.

If the Child Theme is regularly updated (it rarely is) you should be okay. In most cases you will fall off the parent theme upgrade curve.

Parent Themes are Forever

What you don’t know (and what your web company may not know if they are marketers first, developers second) is that your Parent Theme is licensed forever. I use themes that are over ten years old. The theme developers are usually proud of their work and keep the code right up to date. They sometimes gut and rebuild a theme to keep in line with modern best practice in coding and web design.

More ruthless dev teams rename popular themes as their own.

Child Theme Restraint

A note to coders and wannabes

The best thing to do if you are using a child theme – is keep it simple.

Modify stuff like…

  • headings
  • font sizes
  • font colours
  • background colours
  • replace background images

…through the child theme. Keep it as small a CSS file as you need.

Don’t rewrite the parent theme with 84 pages of code (as I see again and again).

WooCommerce PHP Page Mods

Themes often have a WooCommerce folder rewiting the way a standard WooCommerce page might look. The do it to match the look of their theme. teAltering the display of a WooCommerce single-product.php page to display in a certain way.

Say we’re using Divi and we’ve added functions through the functions file. We’ve also changed the look of the header and footer PHP files of the theme. It looks great. The client loves it. One month passes. Your main parent theme has to be up to date all the time for security reasons, so that gets updated repeatedly. The same with WordPress. And all associated plug-ins (that’s what I do. Most of my life is spent updating WordPress, its themes, and plugins).

In some cases, themes are incompatible with a WordPress update. WordPress has the annoying “solution” of displaying “This site is experiencing a technical issue”. Read more about how to fix a WP site experiencing difficulties issue here.

Do you even need a child theme?

If you’re using an extensive theme like Divi or Aveda you don’t set up a child theme. Don’t try and modify something that has a team of developers behind it. Just go with the theme itself. Each upgrade not only adds security but it will have a ton of new features – each of which will be added to the theme’s documentation.

Think about the next guy

If you do write a child theme, limit it to one (A4) page. If you do it that way, the next developer (that’s me) who comes along, doesn’t have to wade through unnecessary code that was addressed months ago in the parent theme.

Instead, write to the theme developer and give him/her a suggestion about how theme functionality could be improved.