05/25/2011 at 02:00 PM EDT
may be the poster boy for Hollywood dads, but he admits that even he makes parenting mistakes just like everyone else.
Asked if he's ever felt that all-too-common sinking feeling like he's just made a terrible dad error, Pitt tells PEOPLE, "Not [like I'm] a horrible parent, but I've certainly made mistakes and had to make up for it."
The actor spoke to PEOPLE at the Los Angeles premiere of his new film The Tree of Life
, which won the top prize
at the Cannes Film Festival
. In the movie, Pitt plays an abusive 1950s-era father whose actions profoundly impact the life of one of his three sons in particular.
Pitt had to draw on his acting skills to find his inner bad dad. "I certainly don't raise my kids that same way," he says. "I'm painfully aware that my actions leave a double mark on them in these formidable years, so I make sure I don't bring my crap at home."
Plus, Pitt says he wants to let his six kids with partner Angelina Jolie
learn to be themselves. "I want to keep them free to explore that innocence as long as possible and find out what's really interesting to them," he says. "I just don't want to encumber them in any way."
Because director Terrence Malick's film was shot largely without a script, Pitt and the filmmakers took extra care not to traumatize the young actors who play his sons during the scarier sequences.
"We had to be careful with that, because they are young boys and you don't want to scar them in the process," Pitt says. "So it was explained to them ahead of time and they knew it was coming, but they didn't know when
it was coming. And in between we made sure we had a lot of time of everyday life, throwing the ball around and riding bikes. And I think everyone got through it unscathed."
But just in case, Pitt made sure to win the boys' hearts off-screen – by buying them motorcycles. "They are great," he said. "We come from the same neck of the woods."
Back at home, Pitt says neither he nor Jolie is nudging their kids to follow in their acting footsteps. "Listen, I just want them to follow their bliss. Whatever makes them happy," he says.
And right now, making his family happy includes his next role, recording a voice for the animated sequel Happy Feet 2.
"I mean Happy Feet
is on heavy rotation in our house," he says with a laugh, "so it was a must!"