A deep dive into children in React


The core of React is components. You can nest these components like you would nest HTML tags, which makes is easy to write JSX since it resembles markup.

When I first learned React, I thought “Use props.children and that’s it. I know everything about children” Boy, was I wrong.

Because we’re working with JavaScript, we can change children. We can send special properties to them, decide if we want them to render or not and generally manipulate them to our will. Let’s dig into the power of children in React.

Table of contents

Child components

Let’s say we have a <Grid /> component which can contain <Row /> components. You’d use it like so:

<Grid>
  <Row />
  <Row />
  <Row />
</Grid>
The rendered components, one Grid containing three rows
(Live demo)

These three Row components are passed to the Grid component as props.children. Using an expression container (that’s the technical term for those squiggly brackets in JSX) parents can render their children:

class Grid extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return <div>{this.props.children}</div>
  }
}

Parents can also decide not to render any children or to manipulate them before rendering. For example, this <Fullstop /> component does not render its children at all:

class Fullstop extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return <h1>Hello world!</h1>
  }
}

No matter which children you pass to this component, it will always show “Hello world!” and nothing else. Full stop.

Note: The <h1> in the example above (much like all the HTML primitives) does render its children, in this case ‘Hello World!’.

Everything can be a child

Children in React don’t have to be components, they can be anything. For example, we can pass our <Grid /> component from above some text as children and it’ll work perfectly fine:

<Grid>Hello world!</Grid>
The grid component rendering 'Hello world!'
(Live demo)

JSX will automatically remove whitespace on the beginning and ending of a line as well as blank lines. It also condenses blank lines in the middle of string literals into one space.

This means all of these examples will render the same thing:

<Grid>Hello world!</Grid>

<Grid>
  Hello world!
</Grid>

<Grid>
  Hello
  world!
</Grid>

<Grid>

  Hello world!
</Grid>

You can also mix and match multiple types of children perfectly fine:

<Grid>
  Here is a row:
  <Row />
  Here is another row:
  <Row />
</Grid>
The grid component rendering two rows and some text
(Live demo)

Function as a child

We can pass any JavaScript expression as children. This includes functions.

To illustrate what that would look like, this is a component which executes a function passed to it as a child:

class Executioner extends React.Component {
  render() {
    // See how we're calling the child as a function?
    //                        ↓
    return this.props.children()
  }
}

You’d use this component like so:

<Executioner>
  {() => <h1>Hello World!</h1>}
</Executioner>

This specific example isn’t useful, of course, but it shows the idea.

Imagine you had to fetch some data from a server. You could do this in a variety of ways, but it’s possible with this function-as-a-child pattern:

<Fetch url="api.myself.com">
  {(result) => <p>{result}</p>}
</Fetch>

Spend a minute to play around with this bin and see if you can figure out how to make this work. (here is my go at it)

Don’t worry if this is over your head. All I want is that you’re not surprised when you see this in the wild. With children, anything goes.

Manipulating children

If you take a look at the React docs you will see it says that “children are an opaque data structure”. What they are essentially telling us is that props.children can be any type, such as an array, a function, an object, etc. Since you can pass anything, you can never know for sure.

React provides a bunch of helper functions to make manipulating children easy and painless. These are available at React.Children.

Looping over children

The two most obvious helpers are React.Children.map and React.Children.forEach. They work exactly like their array counterparts, except they also work when a function, object or anything is passed as children.

class IgnoreFirstChild extends React.Component {
  render() {
    const children = this.props.children
    return (
      <div>
        {React.Children.map(children, (child, i) => {
          // Ignore the first child
          if (i < 1) return
          return child
        })}
      </div>
    )
  }
}

The <IgnoreFirstChild /> component here maps over all its children, ignoring the first child and returning all the others.

<IgnoreFirstChild>
  <h1>First</h1>
  <h1>Second</h1> // <- Only this is rendered
</IgnoreFirstChild>
Some text saying 'Second'
(Live demo)

In this case, we could’ve also used this.props.children.map. But what would’ve happened if somebody passed a function as a child? this.props.children would’ve been a function instead of an array, and we would’ve had an error! 😱

TypeError: this.props.children.map is not a function

With the React.Children.map function though, this is no problem whatsoever:

<IgnoreFirstChild>
  {() => <h1>First</h1>} // <- Ignored 💪
</IgnoreFirstChild>

Counting children

Since this.props.children can be any type, checking how many children a component has turns out to be rather hard! Naïvely doing this.props.children.length would break when passed a String or a function. We’d have one child, "Hello World!", but the .length would be reported as 12 instead!

That’s why we have React.Children.count:

class ChildrenCounter extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return <p>React.Children.count(this.props.children)</p>
  }
}

It returns the number of children no matter what type they are:

// Renders "1"
<ChildrenCounter>
  Second!
</ChildrenCounter>

// Renders "2"
<ChildrenCounter>
  <p>First</p>
  <ChildComponent />
</ChildrenCounter>

// Renders "3"
<ChildrenCounter>
  {() => <h1>First!</h1>}
  Second!
  <p>Third!</p>
</ChildrenCounter>

Converting children to an array

As a last resort, if none of the above methods fit your need, you can convert your children to an array with React.Children.toArray. This would be useful if you needed to e.g. sort them:

class Sort extends React.Component {
  render() {
    const children = React.Children.toArray(this.props.children)
    // Sort and render the children
    return <p>{children.sort().join(' ')}</p>
  }
}
<Sort>
  // We use expression containers to make sure our strings
  // are passed as three children, not as one string
  {'bananas'}{'oranges'}{'apples'}
</Sort>

The above example renders the strings, but sorted:

apples bananas oranges
(Live demo)

Enforcing a single child

If you think back to our <Executioner /> component above, it expects only a single child to be passed, which has to be a function.

class Executioner extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return this.props.children()
  }
}

We could try to enforce this with propTypes, which would look something like this:

Executioner.propTypes = {
  children: React.PropTypes.func.isRequired,
}

That would log a message to the console though, something developers could ignore. Instead, we can use React.Children.only inside our render method!

class Executioner extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return React.Children.only(this.props.children)()
  }
}

This returns the only child in this.props.children. If there is more than one child, it throws an error, thusly grinding the entire app to a halt—perfect to avoid lazy devs trying to mess with our component. 😎

Editing children

We can render arbitrary components as children, but still control them from the parent instead of the component we render them from. To illustrate this, let’s say we have a RadioGroup component which can contain a number of RadioButton components. (which render an <input type="radio"> inside a <label>)

The RadioButtons are not rendered from the RadioGroup itself, they are used as children. This means somewhere in our application we have this code:

render() {
  return(
    <RadioGroup>
      <RadioButton value="first">First</RadioButton>
      <RadioButton value="second">Second</RadioButton>
      <RadioButton value="third">Third</RadioButton>
    </RadioGroup>
  )
}

There is an issue with this code though. The inputs aren’t grouped, which leads to this:

Three radio buttons, all selected
(Live demo)

To group input tags together they all need to have the same name attribute. We could of course go through and assign a name property to every single RadioButton:

<RadioGroup>
  <RadioButton name="g1" value="first">First</RadioButton>
  <RadioButton name="g1" value="second">Second</RadioButton>
  <RadioButton name="g1" value="third">Third</RadioButton>
</RadioGroup>

But that’s a) tedious and b) error prone. We have all the power of JavaScript at our fingertips! Can we use that to tell our RadioGroup the name we want all its children to get and have it take care of that automatically?

Changing children props

In our RadioGroup we’ll add a new bound method called renderChildren where we’ll edit the childrens props:

class RadioGroup extends React.Component {
  constructor() {
    super()
    // Bind the method to the component context
    this.renderChildren = this.renderChildren.bind(this)
  }

  renderChildren() {
    // TODO: Change the name prop of all children
    // to this.props.name
    return this.props.children
  }

  render() {
    return (
      <div className="group">
        {this.renderChildren()}
      </div>
    )
  }
}

Let’s start by mapping over the children to get each individual child:

renderChildren() {
  return React.Children.map(this.props.children, child => {
    // TODO: Change the name prop to this.props.name
    return child
  })
}

How can we edit their properties though?

Immutably cloning elements

This is where the last helper method of today comes into play. As the name suggests, React.cloneElement clones an element. We pass it the element we want to clone as the first argument, and then as a second argument we can pass an object of props we want to be set on the cloned element:

const cloned = React.cloneElement(element, {
  new: 'yes!'
})

The cloned element will now have the new prop set to "yes!".

This is exactly what we need to finish our RadioGroup. We clone each child and set the name prop of the cloned child to this.props.name:

renderChildren() {
  return React.Children.map(this.props.children, child => {
    return React.cloneElement(child, {
      name: this.props.name
    })
  })
}

The last step is to pass a unique name to our RadioGroup:

<RadioGroup name="g1">
  <RadioButton value="first">First</RadioButton>
  <RadioButton value="second">Second</RadioButton>
  <RadioButton value="third">Third</RadioButton>
</RadioGroup>
Three radio buttons, one of them selected
(Live demo)

It works! 🎉 Instead of manually having to set the name attribute on every RadioButton, we just tell our RadioGroup what we want to the name to be and it takes care of that.

Summary

Children make React components feel like markup instead of disjointed entities. Using the power of JavaScript and some React helper functions we can work with them to create declarative APIs and make our lives easier.

Thanks to Karl Horky and Jake Trent.


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