New York Talya Appelbaum recently had a "High School Musical" birthday party. She got special balloons and a slice of cake decorated with the spoiled Sharpay, her favorite character because "she's with Ryan."
Jemma Fox has an HSM karaoke microphone and trading cards of the East High gang.
Talya and Jemma are 3 years old. They have tot-sized insights but large obsessions with the wildly popular Disney franchise that has jumped from TV show to hit song factory to merchandising mania since 2006, when the Wildcats first took kid culture by storm.
But it's high school, and now senior year at that. Do Talya and Jemma need to "bop to the top" or demand "all things fabulous?" And what about the kissing, the backbiting and the big-kid fashions?
With the October release of the third HSM movie - this one in theaters rather than on the Disney Channel - parents of extra-young aficionados are debating whether the phenom is innocent dance-'til-you-drop fun or not quite appropriate.
"It really is insipid, and Disney starts early and has some clever ways to get to the kids who don't even watch movies, listen to the radio or read," said Jemma's mom, Jennifer Hawkins of New York.
Appelbaum has three older kids, including a 4-year-old daughter. All are HSM fans. Appelbaum isn't sure she could shield her youngest, even if she wanted to. But HSM's popularity among young children, along with similar adolescent fare like Hannah Montana - the other Disney mega-franchise - isn't limited to those exposed through older siblings.
Five-year-old Valencia White got hooked after dad bought tickets to "High School Musical: The Ice Tour" last year.
"She went straight from Disney princess to 'High School Musical,"' said her mother, Virginia Duplessis of El Cerrito, Calif. "The child has never seen the movies, yet she knew the songs immediately. It just got to a point where it's everywhere and the more we were trying to make it this forbidden fruit, the more interested she was getting."
Therein lies the parenting challenge, said Jean Twenge, a social psychologist and associate professor at San Diego State University who studied young people and pop culture for her book, "Generation Me."
The pressure to succeed, materialism, an emphasis on outer beauty, narcissism, romance trouble and other issues faced by high schoolers may not be what draw young children in, but the issues are there nonetheless, Twenge said.
"How do you even talk to a 3-year-old about this stuff? Think before you leap. If you've leapt, then cut her off. There are things you have to take a stand on," she counsels parents.
Any hint of parody or sarcastic nuance is most likely lost on the very young, Twenge said.
No role model
Consider Sharpay, the brash and popular HSM schemer who wants heartthrob Troy to herself and makes dark-haired, brainy Gabriella miserable in the process. While Sharpay may learn some life lessons on the way, her journey might be difficult for the very young to process.
Like 3-year-old Talya, Duplessis' daughter Valencia is a Sharpay fan.
"I say she seems kind of mean, and she says, 'Oh but she's so pretty and I really like that song 'Fabulous,'" Duplessis said. "It's the focus on clothes, appearance. That's what bothers me the most. It's good clean fun with Jimmy Choo flip-flops, perfect hair and makeup. I would just rather her focus on being a kid and having fun and getting dirty."
Before "High School Musical" entered their lives, Duplessis and her husband, David White, restricted their kindergartner's TV-watching mostly to PBS in their liberal area just outside Berkeley. Now Valencia's grandparents, aunts and uncles have bought her HSM notepads, a backpack, cups and a T-shirt.
Disney spokeswoman Patti McTeague said children younger than 6 have other programming geared more for them, including a daily eight-hour dose of Playhouse Disney on the Disney Channel.
"We recognize that younger siblings most often watch Disney Channel with their older brother or sister and that some aspects of our programming, including the music of 'High School Musical' and 'Hannah Montana,' can strike a responsive chord with younger kids," she says, but she adds that their block for younger children "reflect themes more relevant to kids age 6-14."
Talya's mom, Melanie Appelbaum of Harrison, N.Y., doesn't worry about the teen themes.
"They don't really kiss until the end of the second movie," she says. "So much of what people are worried about is going over their heads. I think you can overanalyze anything."
Selling products to the very young is perhaps the bigger danger, said Juliet Schor, a psychology professor at Boston College who explored the effects of marketing on children in her book "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture."
Hawkins agrees. The microphone Jemma has is bright pink, "looks like a baby toy" and was placed on a low store shelf in a section for young children, she said. And this year's big-screen movie release "High School Musical: Senior Year" includes three new sophomore Wildcats aimed at keeping the franchise fresh.
"They're trying to appeal to a much younger child in order to prepare them for being hooked in," Hawkins said. "One piece of the scenario leads to the next."