John Hawkins: Intro to Child Theming

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It’s never too late to learn about child themes in WordPress, and in this video from WordCamp San Diego, John walks us through the very basics of child theming, overriding templates, overriding vs. pluggable functions and of course theme frameworks.

About the author

Konstantin Kovshenin

WordPress Core Contributor, ex-Automattician, public speaker and consultant, enjoying life in Moscow. I blog about tech, WordPress and DevOps.


  • Child themes really seem like they’re aimed at the casual blogger or lazy designers. People seem to love child themes because it makes upgrading to the latest version of the parent theme easier, but as somebody in the crowd pointed out, that’s also a HUGE drawback to others. The threat of something new breaking my current tweaks is enough to keep me away. I don’t have time to go through the code every time a new upgrade is rolled out and I’m guessing others who run a site fulltime don’t either. I can see how a small Joe Schmoe blog wouldn’t be bothered by this, but what about people running large sites and who rely on their site as a job? Just the idea of something breaking is enough to say “screw that” and stay away.

    Is upgrading really such a huge draw or issue for people? I’ve been running a custom version of a now four (five?) year defunct theme and aside from a tweak here or there, I haven’t even thought of switching to something else. Like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    • Goob, it depends on what you’re doing and what parent theme you’re working with. It also depends on how the theme author is updating the theme, however “not updating” is not the perfect solution. It’s just like saying no to core updates because core updates can break your website.

      Look at the change log for a list of changes you’re about to apply, and if things go wrong, you can always roll back from a backup, and then notify the author of the bug :)

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Goob, in my opinion and experience, the time saved using a parent theme as a base for development more than makes up for the small amount of time you might need to spend vetting updates to the parent theme. Also, no one is going to force you to update the parent theme, so if you were comfortable running on an ancient copy of a parent theme, so be it. Keep in mind that a major advantage of using a parent theme is that you are getting all of the development effort people are putting into the parent theme for “free”. So if a team works upstream to convert your favorite theme to use responsive design, or to solve a common complaint, you save even more time in addition to the time you saved on the initial development. This isn’t being lazy, it’s the most efficient use of resources.

      If you are a running a WP shop, you can pass those savings along to your customers. They pay way less than they would for a totally custom theme, get it much faster, and it is a better tested product.

      I have a curated group of themes that I have used for parent themes over the years, and I never develop a theme from scratch. I’ve been doing this in one way or another for over thirty years as a programmer- code resuse. I wouldn’t hire a programmer that insisted on recoding everything from scratch when there were fully tested libraries that were easily modifiable- this is exactly what the parent and child theme functionality gives us. Resuing tested code isn’t casual or lazy- it’s professional.

    • Hey Michael, thanks for your comment! I agree, and again, it really depends on which theme you’re using as your parent. There are good choices as well as bad ones, where you’ll end up overriding 99% of the template files and most of the CSS code, and finally realize it would have been easier to make it from scratch :)