A common situation when writing React components is needing to render a particular component only under certain conditions. There are many ways to accomplish this, but the route you take often has nuanced implications or differing utility based on the current state of the code/component/system.

Let us consider the case of a component that requires some prop data to render. The following are two, general tactics for handling missing prop data:

  1. Have the parent decide not to render the child if the prop is unavailable
  2. Have the child itself decide to return nullish if a prop is unavailable

Tactic 1:

const Child = ({requiredProp}) => {
  return <div className="some-class">{requiredProp}</div>
}

const App = (props) => {
  let importantData = useImportantData()
  return (
    <div>
      <Header />
      <Main />
      {importantData && <Child requiredProp={importantData} />}
      <Footer />
    </div>
  )
}

Tactic 2:

const Child = ({requiredProp}) => {
  if (!requiredProp) {
    return null
  }
  return <div className="some-class">{requiredProp}</div>
}

const App = (props) => {
  let importantData = useImportantData()
  return (
    <div>
      <Header />
      <Main />
      <Child requiredProp={importantData} />
      <Footer />
    </div>
  )
}

Note: I’m using “null checks” as the use case but this could easily apply to other kinds of validation, i.e. missing attributes, unsupported types, etc.

Both are valid approaches that are useful in varying cases. However, I find Tactic 2 (let child decide rendering) to be a better default approach.

Preferring Tactic 2

I find Tactic 2 preferable in most cases because it is better at (1) pushing rendering decisions down into more-relevant components and (2) encapsulating knowledge about a component and its internal needs.

The following are specific areas it performs better:

  1. Avoids extra boolean and ternary expressions
  2. Prevents reliance on weak PropType “guarantees”
  3. Avoids duplicating checks among many parents

Avoids extra boolean and ternary expressions

It can prevent boolean and ternary expressions a la {requiredProp && <Child prop={requiredProp} />} in our example. Like many programming constructs, they’re fine in small amounts but can get easily out of hand: (1) too many expressions, (2) nested expressions, or (3) overly large expressions. Also, these expressions have some annoying gotchas for JSX rendering because of falsiness in JavaScript: '' or 0 values for requiredProp would fail the && check and not render Child.

Expecting the Child component to deal with returning a nullish value itself if it doesn’t have the data it needs (1) simplifies the parent, (2) allows for more rigorous validation that may be clumsy in a simple expression, and (3) further encapsulates the knowledge of what a component needs to render.

Prevents reliance on weak PropType “guarantees”

Using PropTypes to denote a prop as required is simple:

Child.propTypes = {
  requireProp: PropTypes.object.isRequired()
}

However, this provides only a very weak guarantee with several problems:

  1. PropTypes failures only log to the console, so they are easy to miss
  2. PropTypes are commonly stripped from production builds
  3. The common penalty for using a nullish prop is raising a TypeError that breaks the whole render tree

Because of this, the safest approach is to expect a component to do its own validation regardless of what its parent does or its PropTypes “guarantee”. However, if you’re doing TypeScript, required props in interfaces are more useful because of the compiler checks.

Avoids duplicating checks among many parents

If some piece of data is not available in one parent component, it’s equally likely that it may not be available in another. So, every parent who renders the Child component must duplicate the validation done by Tactic 1. Obviously, this is not a big deal if the Child component is used in only one place, but who knows what next sprint will bring.

Case for Tactic 1

I have found Tactic 1 (let parent decide rendering) to be the better tactic in the following cases:

  1. Rendering modal-like things
  2. Rendering components that are known to have a costly setup or render (i.e., trigger lots of side effects, render large trees, or perform expensive calculations)

Be warned, the assumption of “costly” by the parent can easily be wrong or outdated. Maybe the Child intuitively seems costly but in actuality isn’t; maybe the Child was costly in the past but isn’t anymore. I find it best to start with Tactic 2 and then refactor to Tactic 1 if it becomes a problem; then it’s just another optimization decision.

Tactic 2B: the interrupting component

Tactic 2 is very useful for the average case, but as explained earlier some cases are not a natural fit. It can also be annoying if a component is using many React Hooks which, by the Rules of Hooks, need to always come before any if statements.

const Child = ({requiredProp}) => {
  // Will execute once even though we'd rather return early
  useEffect(() => {
    if (requiredProp) {
      doSomething(requiredProp)
    }
  }, [requiredProp])

  if (!requiredProp) {
    return null
  }
  return <div className="some-class">{requiredProp}</div>
}

Now this is fine for a few simple hooks, but if the hooks grow substantially in size, complexity, or number then a variation of Tactic 2 becomes enticing. I’ll denote the following variation as Tactic 2B. It fixes the problem with an intermediate component that interrupts the render flow:

const InnerChild = ({requiredProp}) => {
  useEffect(() => {
    doSomething(requiredProp)
  }, [requiredProp])
  return <div className="some-class">{requiredProp}</div>
}

const Child = (props) => {
  if (!props.requiredProp) {
    return null
  }
  return <InnerChild {...props} />
}

const App = (props) => {
  let importantData = useImportantData()
  return (
    <div>
      <Header />
      <Main />
      <Child requiredProp={importantData} />
      <Footer />
    </div>
  )
}

While this is overkill in our contrived example, it can be very powerful in complex, real-world cases and can actually be elegant across module boundaries where the API looks the same from the outside:

// Child.js

const Child = ({requiredProp}) => {
  useEffect(() => {
    doSomething(requiredProp)
  }, [requiredProp])
  return <div className="some-class">{requiredProp}</div>
}

const ChildInterrupt = (props) => {
  if (!props.requiredProp) {
    return null
  }
  return <Child {...props} />
}

export default ChildInterrupt

I suppose you could also accomplish this with a Higher-order Component (HOC), but I’m bad at writing those so I avoid writing them altogether.

Conclusion

As I said, both tactical approaches have their place depending on your situation. However, in many cases it’s best to push rendering decisions down into the components and encapsulate as much knowledge about them as you can. With that in mind, some variation of Tactic 2 is often the best default approach.

Tommy Groshong

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