This report is part of a series of articles on some of the sessions presented at Denver WordCamp 2013, held Nov.16-17 at the PPA Event Center. The event offered two parallel tracks — one for “Bloggers, Business and Beginning Users” and one for “Developers and Designers.” This session, called "Themes, Parent Themes, Child Themes, and Frameworks — What Does It All Mean?," was presented by Mark Carrara as part of the bloggers track. For more session reports, see the index at right. → → →

Demystifying themes:
Understanding parents and children

Mark Carrara

Mark Carrara


his session, part of the Beginners track, offered an introduction to one of the most central components of WordPress — themes. Themes are ready-made website designs that allow even the most novice users to publish a site by simply filling in the blanks.

Mark Carrara maintains the website for the Tucumcari, NM School District. After years of experience managing technology for other districts, he has become a loyal devotee of WordPress. He has also learned that while WordPress themes are relatively easy to grasp, the terminology can quickly lead to confusion.

In his session on “Themes, Parent Themes, Child Themes, and Frameworks,” he sorted out some of the buzz words and offered a few words of caution.

Basic themes, he explained, are the “trim, landscaping and outside décor” of your website. And there are literally thousands to choose from — both free and paid. At last count, there were 2,140 themes available on the website alone. The WordPress installation also provides several basic themes to get you started.

Should you buy a paid theme? Carrara says no, unless you are looking for very special functionality or you want specific support from a theme vendor.

Changing your theme is relatively easy if you want to try a new look and feel for your site. But be careful, says Carrara. A new theme may not have the same functionality as the one you are using; it will likely require “cleanup” work. And always back up your current site before trying a new theme, he warns.

Beyond the basic theme are some variations. A child theme, he explains, is a theme that is derived from … you guessed it … a parent theme. The child theme inherits functionality from the parent and also protects the parent from changes. If you make changes to a child theme, the parent theme remains unchanged. Likewise, if the parent theme is updated with new functionality, it won’t overwrite any changes you made to the child theme. According to Carrara, most beginners do not need to bother with parent-child themes.

Frameworks, Carrara says, are “super-themes.” They are more of a development environment than a theme per se. Frameworks are primarily for developers who are creating multiple websites or developing themes. Frameworks, Carrara says, are not for beginners. He also suggests you find some tutorials on design if you are not a designer. “Frameworks,” he warns, “give you the flexibility to make an ugly website.”

To sum up, Carrara’s conclusions are simple and straightforward:

  • You need a theme.
  • If modifying a theme, you need a child theme.
  • Frameworks are more complicated; a theme may be enough.