If you have any experience of working in WordPress and using themes, you’re familiar with the idea of installing a theme, however, the Genesis theme uses something called Child Themes. A Child Theme is not something that Genesis invented, it was in fact invented by WordPress.
Child Themes are a way of augmenting an existing theme. What the Genesis theme does is it provides a base level of functionality and then expects you to come along with a Child Theme to add on top of it.
What is a Child Theme?
A child theme is a theme that requires another theme to operate. That is, it builds on or modifies another theme’s appearance or builds on and modifies another theme’s functionality but without that other theme, it won’t work. It is dependent upon a parent theme in order to work.
Historically, the Child Theme was imagined as a way to make minor changes to a theme without hacking the core theme files. Before Child Themes, if you had a theme and you’d installed it and you wanted to change the color, font, the size of a font or a background color, the only way for you to do that would be to open up that themes files and make the change in that theme’s files.
In fact, Thesis was one of the sources of shifting WordPress away from this because one of Thesis’ innovations was to have a system of customizing a theme that would survive upgrades. If you hack the theme’s core files, you wouldn’t be able to upgrade it because as soon as you upgraded the theme, you would lose those changes that you’d made to it.
Segregate Customization to Child Themes
WordPress came up with this thing called the Child Theme which allows you to segregate whatever customization you may do into a separate theme so that you can upgrade the underlying theme without losing those changes.
It was originally imagined as a way of making small stylistic changes. If you want to change a font color, font size or font style, if you want to change your background color or background image, it was just imagined as a way of making minor modifications to a theme.
Except that things changed and themes began developing themselves as theme frameworks and the current practice with the Genesis theme is, the Child Theme is not actually a minor alteration to the Genesis theme, it’s not just a little change of color here or font style there.
Custom Functionality of Genesis Child Themes
What really happens is that Genesis Child Themes are entirely new themes that are built off of the Genesis core and they’re not simply for stylistic changes but they bring with them a whole set of custom functionality.
It’s really sort of Child Theme on steroids as compared to what Child Themes were imagined a couple of years ago when WordPress started developing the function of a Child Theme. When we talk about Child Themes, it’s important to understand the relationship between that parent and the child theme.
Parent and Child Themes Relationship
What happens is that WordPress looks first to the Child Theme and gets whatever settings and information WordPress needs in order to render the page and anything left over, it doesn’t get from the Child Theme, it gets from the Parent Theme. What happens is the Child Theme essentially overrides or takes precedence over any settings or configuration that exists in the Parent Theme.
You can use Genesis without a Child Theme. Genesis is in fact fully functional without a Child Theme however, it does have a very minimal styles as you’ll see later on this week when we install Genesis. It does have a very minimal style and it has very few options for changing that style.
Thesis and Genesis Appearance Customization
If you’re familiar at all with Thesis, you’re familiar with Thesis having many options that you can set to change the appearance of your site whether it’s font size, font color, columns or hundreds of potential settings that you can set. The Genesis theme doesn’t have settings like that, it relies on Child Themes to bring that kind of function to the theme.
For that reason, most people don’t use Genesis alone. Most people use Genesis with a Child Theme and the authors of Genesis expect you to use a Child Theme to make Genesis do what you want it to do.