Possibly a coincidence, but on the same day The Press of Atlantic City published an article about the new Mainland Regional High School random drug-testing policy, I had a discussion (my nice word for trying to talk to a 13-year old) with my son.

He breezed in the kitchen door to find me cooking dinner - something my mother did almost every day of my life and something I try to do at least four times a week. "Are we sitting down for dinner as a family again?" he asked. "Can't I just fix some Ramen noodles and eat in front of the TV? Why can't we be like most families in Linwood?"

I truly hope that's a 13-year old's exaggeration and not fact.

Is it possible that most families don't sit down to dinner during the week? I know, it's more than possible - it's likely. I understand it's difficult to juggle schedules, cook something healthy and manage to serve it in the small window of opportunity between sports, scouts, work and all the other activities in which our family participates. But truly - it's important. If you Google "benefits of families eating together," you'll get about a half-million hits with thousands of references to studies that claim 15 years of data confirm what parents intuitively know: Sitting down to dinner with your family is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members.

Studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that I, as a parent, fervently pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression; fewer eating disorders; higher grade-point averages and self-esteem; better relationships with parents; and, better language skills. I won't even get into the issue of table manners and etiquette - it's not a documented benefit, but it is one for which I will always have hope.

Lower rates of substance abuse? Oh yeah, back to the Mainland Regional High School random drug testing. My son won't be at Mainland for another year, and I'm on the fence about the policy. I have, in my colorful past, protested against mandatory drug testing.

When I was in graduate school at Duke University, Ronald Reagan arrived on campus. I was there to greet him, waving a poster that I'm still quite proud of - "Don't lower your zipper for the Gipper." Clever, huh? Well, it is downright amazing how your attitude changes when your kid is involved and may be at risk. As a parent, I think I may be in favor of the policy. I think I might support just about anything that has even the most remote chance of keeping my baby safe.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents to identify factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of teen substance abuse. The surveys have consistently found that the more often children have dinners with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.

The center also documents a connection between the frequency of family dinners and a teen's access to drugs. Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners, those who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to say they can get marijuana or prescription drugs (to get high) in an hour or less.

Mainland is implementing its random drug-testing policy this year. I'm going to implement (or expand) my own policy, and I hope every family in the area does too. Our family is going to try to sit down to dinner together as much as possible this school year. I know it's hard enough to work and parent. Throw in grocery shopping, food preparation, cooking, serving and cleanup, and it becomes almost impossible. But, you know, Ramen noodles only take three minutes to cook. I used to love Ramen noodles. Maybe I can hide some tofu and vegetables in there.

Junetta Dix, of Linwood, is a wife, a mother of two, an environmental consultant and a former environmental activist.

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