By age 3, every child is a courtroom lawyer, poised to pounce on imprecise phrases or careless wording.

By age 3½, every child is a courtroom lawyer, poised to pounce on imprecise phrases or careless wording. “Objection!” they say, in effect. “Alleged tattletale.”

I didn't discover this personally; my older daughter realized it recently after she and her toddler ran errands together, an activity that led to numerous exchanges such as this:

“Don't play with that.”

“I'm not playing; I'm touching.”

“Don't touch, then.”

“I'm not touching, I'm pointing.”

“Don't point, then.”

And so on. My granddaughter has learned that every parental order may be countered with an argument. She also is tireless, unlike her parents, who haven't slept through the night for, let's see, three-and-a-half years.

At 42 months, a child knows words have meaning, and meaning can be parsed with the focus and intensity of a scientist separating DNA. Years ago, when our first daughter was an infant, we invited friends for dinner. Their 3-year-old daughter was mildly asthmatic, and running around left her on the brink of wheezing. “Bethany, slow down, for heaven's sake,” her father said.

Moments later, we looked up to see Bethany floating in extremely slow motion toward us: one small foot descending with excruciating deliberation, her arm coming around in a graceful swimmer's stroke, while her opposite foot began its forward thrust.

“What are you doing?” her father asked.

“You said slow down,” Bethany replied.

My older grandson recently had dinner at a restaurant with his grandfather—my husband—and his uncle. The point of the evening was to have chicken tenders with honey mustard, a dish he had decided was tantamount to ambrosia.

As it turned out, he was too distracted by the restaurant itself, not to mention the waitress' tattoos, to eat much. But each time his grandpa or his uncle urged him to have a few bites of his chicken strips, he issued a stern correction: “They're chicken tenders,” he'd say. “Ten … ders.”

I once would have said this insistence on adhering to every last sub-regulation had to do with children's appreciation for rules. Toddlers love law and order. My grandson, who has been taught not to wear a hat at the table, has been known to correct relatives at home and strangers in restaurants. “No hats at the table!” he'll bark, causing everyone within earshot to jump and the guilty to whip off their headwear as if it were on fire.

However, children also can be remarkably lax. My granddaughter owns a surging population of stuffed animals. She loves them all, but with rare exceptions, they share the same name: Waffle. Yes, this child who will argue semantics longer than it takes elephants to gestate will give a new addition the same name as 46 old animals, with less thought than a person devotes to what toothpaste to use.

My grandson also has numerous stuffed creatures, many of which his mother and father named before they realized he would have only a passing interest in them. Such interest as he does have centers on correcting what he sees as his parents' naming errors. For instance, last week I plucked from a shelf a brown monkey I'd known for three years as “Eric Thursday.”

“Oh no,” my daughter told me. “That's Bobo Rabbit.”

I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one. But I do know this: Those flat pieces often served with honey mustard are chicken tenders. Got it? Ten-ders.

Margo Bartlett and her husband have two daughters, two sons-in-law, three grandchildren and two car seats. She also writes the Just Thinking column for ThisWeek Community News. You can reach her at margo.bartlett@gmail.com.